This Sunday, if Anna Jarvis were still alive, she would flare her patrician nostrils, flash her imperious eyes—and send Mother’s Day a drop-dead card.
She would be within her rights. Anna was the founder of Mother’s Day. Her own mother, Anne Reeves Jarvis, the schoolteacher wife of a prominent Methodist minister in West Virginia, thought a day honoring mothers might help bind up a nation still bitterly divided after the Civil War. But only after Mrs. Jarvis died, on the second Sunday in May 1905, did her daughter’s determination bring the idea to fruition. For a couple of years the observance was confined to Philadelphia, where young Anna was an insurance company librarian, but in 1914 Woodrow Wilson made it national.
Yet by the 1920s Anna Jarvis was ranting at what Mother’s Day had become: a pretext for the perfunctory acts of obeisance that make it a boon to late spring retail sales. “A printed card,” Anna protested, “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!” The “grafters” who purveyed such trifles would, she said, “take the coppers off a dead mother’s eyes.”
Jarvis organized a campaign to stop the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Then in 1925 she was arrested for trying to break up a meeting of War Mothers who had usurped her trademark white carnation. Later she made headlines lobbying against a Mother’s Day stamp that featured Whistler’s mother instead of her own. But the tide was too great. By her 70s, Anna had become a reclusive eccentric who spent her days listening to the radio, waiting to hear her mother’s voice. A childless spinster, she made her house a shrine to Mother Jarvis, and saw her inheritance ebb away in the Depression. Growing blind and deaf, she was finally moved to a nursing home—where she was secretly supported by the florists she so despised until she died in 1948. A reporter who visited her before her death at 84 got Anna Jarvis’ last public sentiment. “She told me with great bitterness,” he said, “that she was sorry she had ever started Mother’s Day.”