Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Hand that Rocks the. Cradle (1914)

May 14, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


   Mothers have always been sacrosanct: the Roman Catholic Church has a cult of the Virgin, beloved nursery rhymes are associated with one named Goose, and Whistler painted an iconic portrait of his. Hence, it was only fitting that a day be set aside to honor mothers; however, it came with a bizarre twist.

      The genesis of Mother’s Day started with a woman from West Virginia, a Sunday school teacher and wife of the Reverend Granville Jarvis, a prominent Methodist Minister.  During the Civil War, Ann, along with her friend, Julia Ward Howe-composer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”- formed the Mothers’ Friendships Clubs-comprised of both Union and Confederate women- who nursed wounded soldiers, regardless of the color of their uniform. When the War ended, the hatred endured, and to diffuse tensions, Ann showed up in her town-square dressed in the gray of the Confederacy with a friend dressed in the blue of the Union. They asked the band to play “Dixie” and the “Star-Spangled Banner” and convinced the soldiers to lay down their arms.

    For the remainder of the conflict, Mrs. Jarvis worked tirelessly despite the loss of four of her ten children to disease. The ninth baby was daughter Anna, born in 1864 in a two-story wooden house in Webster, and raised in Grafton, where the family moved when she was a year old.  Ann was an advocate of female education, and under her encouragement, Anna attended college at Augusta Female Seminary in Staunton, Virginia, (now Mary Baldwin College,) then she returned to Grafton where she taught for several years. She left her position to join her brother Claude in Philadelphia and worked with him in his lucrative taxi business. After her father passed away, brother and sister brought their mother to live with them. The day of Ann’s funeral on May 9, 1905, at age 72, in tribute the bell of St. Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton pealed 72 times.

      What helped Anna with her overwhelming grief was her eureka moment, born from a memory that had taken place when she was 12 years old. She had been in her father’s church when Mrs. Jarvis gave a Sunday school talk about Biblical mothers that ended with her wish that a day should be set aside in observance of these women. She closed by saying, “I hope that someone, some time, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life.” A year later, on the anniversary of her passing, Anna organized a memorial where she praised the contribution Ann Jarvis made during the Civil War. 

     Three years later, on May 10, 1908, Jarvis organized another memorial at her church, not just for her own mother, but also for all mothers, which became the first observance of the holiday. Although Anna was not present, she sent a telegram that described the significance of the day as well as providing 500 white carnations, one for everyone who attended the service. She chose this flower as it had been her mother’s favorite, and because of its symbolism. She stated, “Its whiteness is to symbolize the truth, purity and broad-charity of mother love; its fragrance, her memory, and her prayers. The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to her heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying. When I selected the flower, I was remembering my mother’s bed of white pinks.” The reason for her absence was because she was speaking in Philadelphia at the Wanamaker’s Store Auditorium, convincing the crowd that Mother’s Day should be adopted on the national level. The idea became her cause de cèlèbre.

         Anna wrote an avalanche of letters to editors, politicians, and church leaders, and her correspondence grew so voluminous that she purchased the neighboring house to store the correspondence. In 1908 the US Congress rejected a proposal to make the day official, joking that they would also have to proclaim a “Mother-in-law’s Day.” However, owing to Anna’s persistence, by 1911 all the states observed the unofficial holiday, the first being Jarvis’ West Virginia. Her diligence finally paid off when her longtime friend, President Woodrow Wilson, signed a proclamation designating Mother’s Day to be observed on the second Sunday in May.  According to President Wilson,  “The American mother is the greatest source of our country’s strength and inspiration.” A nation divided over women’s suffrage could unite over maternal love. Indeed, Jarvis put a feminist slant on the holiday she had fought into existence, “Memorial Day is for Departed fathers, Independence Day is for Patriot Fathers, Thanksgiving Day is for Pilgrim Fathers.” Anna Jarvis was pleased with her brainchild and proudly signed each letter, ‘Mother of Mother’s Day.’

         The thorn on the rose came when Anna grew alarmed at the ensuing commercialization of her holiday that she considered a holy day. In the early 1920s, she began to resent florists for marketing carnations and raising their prices in May; her ire was also directed at candy companies who upped their advertising for the occasion. In 1932 she broke up a rally of the American War Mothers when they sold carnations, railing they had usurped her trademark flower. Police dragged Anna away, and she spent a brief period in jail, charged with disturbing the peace. She had also crashed a confectioners’ convention and chastised them for making millions from her idea. They retaliated by pronouncing her “a crazy old spinster.” Her anger also extended to Joyce Hall who founded his eponymous Hallmark cards and sold thousands of his products geared for the holiday.  Jarvis lashed out, “A maudlin, insincere 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.” She went on to add that those “grafters” who purchased such trifles would “take the coppers off a dead mother’s eyes.” She organized speaking engagements where she referred to florists, greeting-card manufacturers, and the confectionary industry as charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, and kidnappers. She refused to make money from her holiday that could have proved a cash-cow.

       In 1934 Miss Jarvis was less than pleased when the United States Postal Service issued a 3 cent stamp designed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to commemorate the day. It featured the replica of the painting Whistler’s Mother along with a superimposed vase of white carnations. Miss Jarvis was vehement in her dislike as she viewed it as a promotion for the floral industry. The iconic maternal image bore the dedication: IN MEMORY AND IN HONOR OF THE MOTHERS OF AMERICA. Jarvis owned the patent to the term Mother’s Day and refused its inclusion.

     In a nod to irony, while Anna Jarvis had dedicated the first half of her life to launching Mother’s Day, she spent her later years trying to rescind the holiday she had birthed. In 1943 Anna organized a petition for its removal, but it and similar efforts were halted when her increasingly erratic behavior led the 80-year-old to a forced placement in Marshall Square Mental Sanatorium in Pennsylvania. A group called the Floral Exchange paid for her upkeep-either in gratitude for starting their industry’s lucrative holiday or to remove the thorn in their side.

      Anna Jarvis passed away childless and was interred next to her mother and other family members. No doubt she would roll over in her grave if she knew Mother’s Day generates billions in revenue. Since 1979 the wooden home of her birth is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in tribute to the woman who launched an iconic holiday. The honor is understandable as, in the words of William Ross Wallace’s 1865 poem, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”