The Parent Trap

The founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, had no children of her own and decried the commercialization of the holiday.

Jarvis had proposed a national Mother’s Day in 1907, in part to honor her own mother. She promoted the idea with governors, congressmen, editors, and the White House, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson set aside the second Sunday in May to honor the nation’s mothers. But the holiday was almost immediately co-opted by merchants, a turn that horrified Jarvis. “Confectioners put a white ribbon on a box of candy and advance the price just because it’s Mother’s Day,” she complained in 1924. “There is no connection between candy and this day. It is pure commercialization.”

She tried to stem the tide by legal means, incorporating herself as the Mother’s Day International Association and threatening copyright suits against what she felt were commercial celebrations. She had recommended the wearing of carnations to mark the holiday; when florists raised the price she distributed celluloid buttons instead at her own expense.

She reserved a special bitterness for sons who bought mass-produced cards for their mothers. “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world,” she said. “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

“The sending of a wire is not sufficient. Write a letter to your mother. No person is too busy to do this.”

It was hopeless. Her spirit never flagged, but her finances began to give way, and in 1943, penniless and almost blind, she was admitted to a Philadelphia hospital. Her friends pledged funds for her support, and she died in a West Chester sanitarium in 1948.