The Surprising Story Behind Mother's Day

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Where does the apostrophe go in “Mother’s Day”?

I’ve always known it to be after the r, making it singular possessive.

But why isn’t it plural?

This grammatical question had me curious… and led me to look into the origins of the holiday.

And I was surprised by what I learned…

The story of Mother’s Day goes back to 1858.

And it begins with a problem.

A West Virginia community had a terrible infant mortality rate, and a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis wanted to do something about it.

Mother of Anna M. Jarvis, Founder of Mother's Day - original caption: This is Anna Jarvis, mother of Miss Anna M. Jarvis who campaigned to have the second Sunday in May set aside each year as a day of honour to the mothers of the nation.
Ann Reeves Jarvis

She organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” in West Virginia to help mothers learn about hygiene and sanitation – and how to care for their children .

Jarvis understood a mother’s loss, as she had 13 children of her own, but only four lived into adulthood. 

In addition to helping educate mothers in the area, she also worked to bring reconciliation after the American Civil War ended.

She lost five of her children during the Civil War, and in 1868, she coordinated a “Mothers’ Friendship Day” in West Virginia to bring former foes together.

Veterans from both the North and South wept and shook hands for the first time in years.

Jarvis knew the powerful role mothers played, and wanted to see mothers celebrated for the work they did to improve the lives of others.

“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers' day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it,” Mrs Jarvis said.

When Ann Reeves Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter Anna was determined to fulfil her mother’s dream to celebrate mothers.

Mother's Day Founder Anna M. Jarvis
Anna Jarvis, the founder of US Mother’s Day

But Anna had a different approach. 

She wanted to celebrate her mother – from the position of a devoted daughter.

Her motto for Mother's Day was "For the Best Mother who Ever Lived—Your Mother." 

This was why the apostrophe had to be singular, not plural.

Congratulations! It's... Mother's Day - History Adventures

According to historian Katharine Antolini:

“Anna envisioned the holiday as a homecoming, a day to honor your mother, the one woman who dedicated her life to you.”

The idea of celebrating the sacrifices a mother made was supported by others – and Anna’s decision to celebrate on a Sunday made it appeal to churches as well.

The first Mother's Day was celebrated in the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia in 1908 – three years after Anna Jarvis’s mother died. 

Anna handed out hundreds of white carnations (her mother's favorite flower) to the mothers who attended.

The date was intentional. Anna wanted Mother’s Day to be celebrated on the second Sunday in May, because it would always be close to May 9, the day her mother had died. 

And Anna was determined to see Mother’s Day spread. 

Anna began a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians, arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, and urged them to adopt a special day honoring motherhood.  

She also created a Mother’s Day International Association and trademarked the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May.”

Her efforts were working, and in 1910, West Virginia made Mother’s Day a state holiday. 

And her idea quickly spread beyond West Virginia.

FamilySearch - Have you ever wondered when and how Mother's Day became a  national holiday? We have the efforts of Anna Jarvis to thank for this  opportunity to officially celebrate the mothers
Anna’s idea for a Mother’s Day celebration was widely embraced

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson designated Mother’s Day as a national holiday. 

Wilson had agreed to Anna’s preferred placement of the apostrophe in “Mother’s Day” — making it singular possessive, not plural possessive, so each family would honor its one and only mother.

Anna’s Mother’s Day idea was embraced across the US, and also by Canada, where it became a national holiday in 1915.

But Anna’s joy was short-lived.

She had envisioned Mother’s Day as a private acknowledgement for all the mother does for her family – but the commercial appeal of Mother’s Day quickly took over.

“Even though Anna never wanted the day to become commercialized, it did very early,” said Katharine.

“So the floral industry, greeting card industry and candy industry deserve some of the credit for the day's promotion.”

When the price of carnations skyrocketed at Mother’s Day, Anna issued a press release condemning florists.

By 1920, she was urging people not to buy flowers at all.

Anna was frustrated when she saw businesses and charities using Mother’s Day for their own purposes – and when it was dragged into the debate over women’s votes.

She even accused First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of “crafty plotting” when Roosevelt used Mother’s Day in fundraising material for charities addressing high maternal and infant mortality rates.

And while many saw Mother’s Day as an opportunity to make money, Anna never profited from Mother’s Day – even though she could easily have done so.

Instead, she used the money she had to fight the commercialization of Mother’s Day. 

Mother's Day Gift Guide
Note: Your mother does not want a rolling pin for Mother’s Day.

She also sued people who infringed on her copyright.

In 1944 Newsweek claimed she had 33 pending lawsuits. Some groups or industries would purposely use the possessive plural spelling “Mothers’ Day” to get around Anna’s copyright.

Anna spent nine years campaigning to make Mother’s Day a national holiday – and then decades of her life trying to have the holiday rescinded. 

Mother's Day in Philly: What to do and Where to Park | The Philadelphia  Parking Authority
Anna is credited in Philadelphia

One of Anna’s first cousins, Jane Unkefer, said Anna became obsessed with her anti-commercialization crusade.

“I don’t think they were very wealthy,” Jane said, “but she totally ran through whatever money she had.”

Anna never married or had children. In 1944, at age 80, the reclusive Anna was nearly blind, deaf and destitute, and was placed in a mental asylum in Philadelphia.

She died four years later, and her obituary described her as a ‘lonely spinster.’

Anna Jarvis Worked Hard to Make Mother's Day a National Holiday
Anna’s obituary from 1948

Though Anna never became a mother, her relatives celebrated her in another way – by not celebrating Mother’s Day.

“We didn’t really like Mother's Day,” Jane said.

“And the reason we didn’t is that my mother, as a child, had heard a lot of negative things said about Mother’s Day.

“We acknowledged it as a nice sentiment, but we didn’t go in for the fancy dinner or the bouquets of flowers.”

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Sorry folks, I know that one was sad.

I don’t know what I expected to learn when I started researching this story, but it wasn’t this.

This story goes into the category of women whose ideas were taken and twisted while others profited. See my story on Lizzie Magie and Monopoly and prepare to get enraged on her behalf.

But stick around, here’s a teaser for next week’s story, that I promise will be much lighter!

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No one dies in next week’s story, I promise.

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