Mothers Day, a Horror Story

Mothers Day, a Horror Story

This is a tale of love, obsession, madness, candy, and carnations. It is the story of Mother’s Day.

The holiday was passionately promoted by single-minded spinster Anna Jarvis (1864-1948), described by Michael Farquhar as “… a woman of fierce loyalty and tireless enterprise and a total raving lunatic.”

Miss Jarvis worshipped her mother’s memory, and no wonder. Her mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis (1832 – 1905), was truly a saint. Daughter of a clergyman, Ann Maria Reeves married merchant and minister Granville E. Jarvis and gave birth to 11 children, only four of whom survived into adulthood.  In 1851 Mrs. Jarvis, a Sunday School teacher, founded Mothers Day Work Clubs in West Virginia. These met in local churches but were no parish sewing circles.  The clubs dealt with health care, disability, infant mortality, poverty, employment, worker safety, food safety, and sanitation issues. Mrs. Jarvis’ brother, James E. Reeves, MD, a public health authority, was a supporter and frequent club lecturer.

The Civil War divided West Virginia communities and families, but Mrs. Jarvis kept Mothers Day Work Club members together. The women treated wounded soldiers on both sides and helped combat typhoid fever and measles epidemics.  After the war Mrs. Jarvis organized an annual Mothers’ Friendship Day to help reunite neighbors who had supported opposing sides. People honored mothers with carnations. After her husband died in 1902, Mrs Jarvis (and her daughters) moved to Philadelphia and lived with her son Claude, a prosperous businessman.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis died on the second Sunday in May 1905, and daughter Anna was bereft. Two years after her mother’s death, on the second Sunday in May, Miss Jarvis invited friends to observe the occasion. In 1907  she telegraphed the minister of the West Virginia church her father had built and promoted a 1908 Mother’s Day service there. She did not attend herself, but donated carnations for mothers in the congregation.

Speaking on “Mothers of the Bible,” Mrs. Ann Maria Jarvis once said: “I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life.” Miss Jarvis devoted her life to fulfilling her mother’s vision. By 1908 she had enlisted prominent Philadelphia allies including philanthropist John Wanamaker. Many states and cities adopted the holiday; the U.S. Congress designated the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day and President Wilson approved the joint resolution in 1914.

Accomplishing her mother’s dream became a nightmare for Anna Jarvis. For her, the holiday was sacred to the memory of her own mother; now it was profaned by hucksterism, the pursuit of profits by florists, confectioners, restaurateurs, and greeting card manufacturers. “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit,” she said:

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment! “ Anna Jarvis

It drove her nuts. Literally. She ended her life in a sanitarium.

Miss Jarvis had worked in an insurance company’s advertising department, and drew on her business experience to incorporate an association in 1912, registering the white carnation symbol and the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day”  trademarks. Note the apostrophe in “Mother’s.” The holiday was to be personal and possessive, not collective and plural.

But it was too late for Anna Jarvis to be possessive; she had promoted the holiday too well. Now it belonged to everybody.

The commercialization of Mother’s Day should not have really surprised Miss Jarvis; her ally John Wanamaker had become a millionaire by inventing the department store and modern advertising. Wanamaker’s stores gave free carnations to women shoppers on the holiday, which was observed at a ceremony in the Wanamaker Store Auditorium on May 10, 1908, where Miss Jarvis spoke to the crowd for over an hour.

In the 1920s Miss Jarvis started claiming  legal rights to Mothers Day and its symbolic carnations, criticizing mother-loving politicians and attacking carnation-wielding American War Mothers.  In the next decade she sued florists and music publishers for trademark infringement and opposed a U.S. postage stamp featuring “Whistler’s Mother” instead of her own. Blind, bitter, deaf, and destitute, Anna Jarvis ended her days institutionalized at the Marshall Square Sanitarium, supported by secret donations from the commercial florists she despised. She died in 1948 and was buried with her mother and brother in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd PA, on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Have a crazy Mother’s Day.


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Image (Screaming About Mother, after Munch and Whistler) by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht,

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not boring or obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

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