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Anna Marie Jarvis - The Woman Who Honored Her Mother By Creating Mothers Day

Updated on May 9, 2013

Today's Mother's Day is a Relatively New Holiday

Throughout history mothers have usually been honored and held in high esteem. As any research on the history of Mother's Day will show, examples of special days to honor mothers go all the way back to ancient times.

However, now days when people speak of the Mother's Day that is celebrated in the United States and other nations on the second Sunday in May, they are referring to a holiday that is still officially less than 100 years old - legislation creating this holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914.

Laws, of course, are not necessarily needed to create holidays, but Mother's Day is almost as much about late nineteenth and early twentieth century Progressive politics as it is about mothers.

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis and her Mother's Day Work Clubs

The story of America's Mother's Day begins with a West Virginia merchant's wife whose name was Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, who was born in Culpeper, Virginia on September 30, 1832 and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 9, 1905.

While still a child, her family moved to Philippi in what is now West Virginia where she grew up and met her future husband, Granville E. Jarvis, whom she married in 1850.

Despite giving birth and being a mother to between eleven and thirteen children (accounts vary but I suspect that this may be due to one or two either being stillborn or dying right after birth and not being included in some accounts of her life), Anna Reeves Jarvis was very active in the life of her community.

Early on she began organizing Mothers' Day Work Clubs in which mothers got together to work to improve health and sanitation in the community.

Mothers' Day here refers to the fact that mothers in the community would set aside a day regularly to work on these projects so the Mothers' Day in this sense refers to the fact that these were the days that mothers got together and worked on their community health and sanitation projects.

Anna's brother, Dr. James Edmond Reeves, helped her with these clubs and the two of them, with the help and encouragement of other doctors, were able to spread the idea of Mothers' Day Work Clubs to other communities.

Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis During the Civil War

During the Civil War Anna Jarvis got the Mothers' Day Work Clubs to help treat and care for soldiers from both sides who were wounded in nearby battles as well as provide food and clothing to soldiers, from both sides, stationed in the area.

In this way she was able to help contain the divisions that arose in the community whose sympathies were divided between the North and South.

During the war, Anna Jarvis suffered the heart break of losing four of her children to disease and later had four others die before they reached adulthood.

In the summer of 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Anna Jarvis organized a Mother's Friendship Day in Pruntytown where they lived. The entire community, including returning soldiers from both sides in the war, was invited and the idea was that the Mothers would act as peacemakers and heal the community.

Despite fears to the contrary, the event was not only a success but was continued as an annual event for the next few years.

In 1868, shortly after the family had moved to nearby Grafton, West Virginia, she organized a similar Mother's Friendship Day in that town as well and this event caught the eye of Julia Ward Howe (author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic) who wrote a poem entitled Mother's Day Proclimation

In this poem she first described the horrors of war and then called upon women to temporarily leave home and hearth, just as men had historically set aside plow and anvil to take up swords and go to war, to attend an international summit of mothers to discuss ways to end war.

Nothing came of Howe's call for a summit but the idea that mothers should be recognized as having a special role in shaping the world outside the home was beginning to take hold.

Howe, of course, was the idealist who promoted the lofty global ideals of peace while Jarvis was the more pragmatic worker who brought individuals together to bury their differences and live in peace in their communities.

Jarvis Home and International Mother's Day Shrine in Grafton, West Virginia

A Daughter and Her Mother

While Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis had nothing to do with the promotion of Mother's Day as we know it and her Mothers' Day activities were aimed at organizing mothers to work together to better their communities, she became the inspiration for our Mother's Day holiday.

Anna Marie Jarvis, daughter of Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, was born on May 1, 1864 and one of the three or four children of Anna and Grenville Jarvis to reach adulthood, is the woman most responsible for giving birth to the holiday we now call Mother's Day.

A very attractive young lady, Anna Marie Jarvis was probably sought after by many young men in her area. She apparently fell for one young man, but when that romance failed, she appears to have been so hurt emotionally that she gave up on men and love and never became romantically involved with a man again.

After completing her studies at the Augusta Female Academy (now Mary Baldwin College) in Staunton, Virginia, she became a school teacher in Grafton and taught for a number of years while continuing to live with her parents and blind sister. The family home in Grafton is now a museum (see YouTube Video at right).

Upon the death of her father, Granville Jarvis in 1902, Anna moved, along with her mother and sister, Elsinore, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where her brother, Claude, owned a successful taxi business. Anna took a job in the advertising department of an insurance company in Philadelphia. Three years later in 1905, her mother, Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis died.

Anna Jarvis Leads a Memorial Service for Her Mother and Vows to Honor Her Mother With a Holiday

After mourning her mother for two years, Anna paid a visit to Andrews Methodist Church, in Grafton where, on May 12, 1907 she led a tribute to the memory of her mother. The Andrews Methodist Church is now the International Mother's Day Shrine.

It was at this time that Anna decided to begin her crusade to create a holiday honoring mothers. While she succeeded in her initial goal seven years later, her Mother's Day project ended up consuming the rest of her life and therein lies a fascinating, but tragic story.

Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis was left financially well off following the death of her merchant husband and upon her death left both Anna and her sister a comfortable inheritance.

Anna also received a generous inheritance upon the death of her brother and had accumulated sizable savings from her employment. While not wealthy she was definitely a well off middle class woman in terms of wealth.

Losing a loved one is always difficult. But for Anna Jarvis the loss of her Mother appears to have left a deep void in her life.

I don't know whether the this sense of loss which dominated the rest of Anna's life was the result of an extremely close relationship with her mother or guilt over not paying enough attention to her mother while she was alive.

The near emptiness in her life after having been a part of a large family and then finding herself alone with a blind sister and a couple nieces and nephews (her brother Claude was the only child of Anna Reeves Jarvis who married and had children) could also have been the cause or could have contributed to her sense of loss.

Another possibility is that she felt she had to do something to match the accomplishments of her mother.

Whatever her reasons, Anna seems to have vowed to pursue the the creation of the Mother's Day with everything she had at her disposal.

She ended up spending a good portion of her time and savings over the next seven years lobbying Congress, Governors and the President to create a nation wide Mother's Day holiday.

Anna Succeeds in Getting Her Holiday and then Changes Her Mind

Like Prohibition and Women's Suffrage, two other popular causes in that era, her first success came at the state level where legislation establishing a holiday honoring mothers began to be enacted.

However, in 1914 Congress passed legislation providing for a holiday honoring Mothers, President Wilson signed the legislation into law and the people of the nation quickly embraced the idea of such a holiday.

Having fulfilled the vow she had made seven years before at the memorial service for her Mother in Grafton, West Virginia, Anna Jarvis should have been satisfied with her success and resumed her life.

But Mother's Day became Anna Jarvis' life and she clung to it as if it was her personal property even going so far as to incorporate Mother's Day claiming the rights to both the name of the holiday and the date, second Sunday in May, when it is observed.

What angered Anna Jarvis about Mother's Day was the commercialism. Almost from the start restaurant owners, florists, greeting card companies and confectioners saw their business increase as people began to celebrate Mother's day with cards, flowers, chocolates and taking their Mothers out to dinner.

Anna's Aggressive Campaign to Repeal Mother's Day Consumed the Rest of Her Life

In addition to trying to halt the holiday by attempting to claim it as her personal property, she began an aggressive campaign to repeal the laws and legislative resolutions that she had originally lobbied to have enacted as well as prevent any celebrations that did not meet her criteria that they be non-commercial.

Her actions in these instances sometimes crossed the line from protest to the use of physical force for which, on a few occasions she ended up being arrested.

In the process of fighting for the repeal of Mother's Day she exhausted both hers and her sister's inheritances leaving them both penny less in their old age.

While one can admire Anna's ideal of Mother's Day being a day when people show love for their Mothers by visiting them and expressing their love for their mothers in their own words, we shouldn't forget that gifts of flowers, candy, fancy cards, dinners at a restaurants, etc. can also be genuine expressions of love.

Anna herself had carnations, which were her Mother's favorite flower, at her first Mother's Day celebration but became angry when she saw florists making money selling flowers on Mother's Day.

Some merchants tried to reason with her and defend themselves first by pointing out that Anna herself had begun the practice of including flowers in the Mother's Day celebration and, second, arguing that initially it was people coming to them seeking to purchase flowers, candy, etc. for their Mothers. The commercialization was as much the result of consumer demand as it was advertising.

Anna was a product of the Progressive Era and those in the Progressive movement not only tended to look down on the commercial classes but also tended to believe that people were basically weak and helpless and thus were easily preyed upon by merchants and others.

Also, while Anna had fought for the creation of a holiday to honor all Mothers, her original impetus had sprung from a desire to honor her Mother and this apparently gave her a feeling of ownership in the holiday.

Not just a feeling, as I mentioned above, she went so far as to incorporate the Mother's Day International Association and tried to copyright the idea of Mother's Day and the celebration of it on the second Sunday in May. She then tried to halt (and sometimes succeeded) Mother's Day commercial promotions as violations of her copyright.

Unlike her Mother, who genuinely liked people and tried to help them but never forced her ways on them, Anna could only see one way, her way

Like the child with a toy who insists that the other children play by his rules or he will pack up his toy and go home, Anna insisted that people either celebrate Mother's Day her way or she would take the holiday back.

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis was a woman whose life consisted of a multitude of accomplishments that made made life better for her neighbors while overcoming the personal hardships of losing eight of her children and trying to keep a community together in the midst of a civil war.

Her daughter ended up with one noble accomplishment on which she then spent the last half of her life trying to undo.

Destitute and Broken Anna's Former Foes Care for Her During Her Final Days

Anna's sister, Elsinore, died in 1944.

Anna, by then blind, partially deaf and financially destitute was admitted to the Marshall Square Sanatorium in West Chester, Pennsylvania about the time of her sister's death and remained there until her own death on November 24, 1948.

Anna was buried in the Jarvis family plot in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Montgomery County Pennsylvania.

Anna's obituary in the New York Times said that friends had arranged and paid for her to be placed in the sanatorium rather than in a charity hospital while other accounts claim that florists secretly paid for her to be in the sanatorium.

Some speculate that the florist's objective was to shut her up and get her out of the way but, more than likely, this was an act of kindness toward a former foe who's intentions they admired and who was too old and feeble to oppose them any longer.

In the end, despite her faults and sad ending to her life, Anna Marie Jarvis did leave behind a beautiful memorial to her Mother and a holiday that, if nothing else, makes people at least pause and think about their mother.

Breakfast in Bed for Mom on Mother's Day
Breakfast in Bed for Mom on Mother's Day | Source
Flowers for Mom on Mother's Day
Flowers for Mom on Mother's Day | Source
Jewelry for Mom on Mother's Day
Jewelry for Mom on Mother's Day | Source
Mother's Day - 1001Gifts for Mom
Mother's Day - 1001Gifts for Mom | Source

© 2009 Chuck Nugent


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