The First Mother’s Day in America

Richard Cavendish marks the first day commemorating mothers, on May 10th, 1908.

'It is Mother's Day in the U.S.A', detail from sheet music, 1919. Library of Congress.

Julia Ward Howe, of ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ fame, tried to start a Mother’s Day for Peace in America after the Civil War, but nothing much came of it. One of her allies, however, was Anna Reece Jarvis, who died in Philadelphia in 1905. A memorial service was held for her at the Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia, where she had taught Sunday school, at which her daughter, Anna May Jarvis, a feminist and temperance activist, was struck by the idea of a national day to honour mothers.

A doughty campaigner, she fired off bombardments of letters and the first Mother's Day was celebrated in 1910 in Grafton and Philadelphia. The idea spread to other states and in 1913 the US Congress voted for a national Mothers Day. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson duly proclaimed it a national event for the second Sunday in May. It quickly became a gala day for American florists and restaurants and the greetings card industry. So much so that Anna May Jarvis wished she had never thought of it, but the idea spread to Britain and many other countries.

Mother’s Day may have been partly inspired by Mothering Sunday, which is much older. Observed on the fourth Sunday in Lent, this was a Christian festival celebrating Mother Church, rather than individual mothers, but it was a time when families gathered at their local church, which meant that family members who had left home would see their mothers once again and would often take gifts for them.