The mother of all battles


“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” The preceding quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche hardly seems appropriate as the opening sentiment in a Mother’s Day remembrance, but as history shows, Nietzsche’s dark thought may be more apropos than we’d like to acknowledge.

The story of Mother’s Day origins — marking its 100th celebration this year — is hardly a happy one. The holiday began as a way for mourning women to remember fallen Civil War soldiers and to work for peace. When this solemn observance became the commercialized Leviathan we all now know, its greatest champion, heiress Anna Jarvis, lost everything, dying penniless in a Philadelphia sanitarium.

The holiday had noble origins. It began in the 1850s, when West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis — Anna’s mother — staged Mother’s Day work clubs to improve public health and lower infant mortality, according to historian, Katharine Antolini of Wesleyan College. The work groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the Civil War.

Anna Jarvis never had children of her own, but the 1905 death of her own mother provided the impetus for her to organize the first Mother’s Day observances in 1908. The idea quickly caught on all over the country. Largely through Jarvis’s efforts, Mother’s Day came to be observed in a growing number of cities and states until President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May in 1914 for the holiday.

Careful readers will have noted that the placement of the apostrophe in the word “Mother’s.” It comes before the ‘s’ denoting a singular possessive, not plural. This was important to Jarvis because she wanted the focus of the day to be on one’s own mother, not the generalized recognition of mothers.

This kind of detail is emblematic of Jarvis’ struggles during the last three decades of her life. The holiday quickly became a commercial treasure trove. Hallmark Cards now lists it second only to Christmas in terms of gift giving and third (behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day) in terms of greeting card purchases.

Jarvis zealously threw herself and her considerable inheritance into the anti-commercialism fray. In a vain attempt to retain control over the holiday, she incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities.

In both 1923 and 1925, she disrupted conventions whose attendees she believed were exploiting the venerated observance.

“The American War Mothers, which still exists, used Mother’s Day for fund-raising and sold carnations every year,” Antolini told National Geographic reporters. “Anna resented that, so she crashed their 1925 convention in Philadelphia and was actually arrested for disturbing the peace.”

Eventually, the battle took its toll on Jarvis and her mental health. In 1948 she died destitute and suffering from dementia in the Marshall Square Sanitarium at Philadelphia.

While it is indisputably true that consumerism won out, Jarvis, were she alive, should take heart that her family’s grand idea has become a catalyst for remembering mothers. While some people doubtless give their mother a card or flowers in the most perfunctory of senses, many more likely use the occasion to do just what Jarvis had hoped: acknowledge the special lady that gave them life.