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The Origins of Mother’s Day: From Antiwar Activists to the Darling of Advertising

Tyra Douyon - May 10, 2023

Mother's Day Design Rearview Advertising

We often think about Mother’s Day as a time to celebrate our mothers, those who birthed us and the women who make an important impact on our lives; however, the Mother’s Day tradition isn’t simply about buying a bouquet of flowers and moms donning sheepish grins as they flip through another free hugs coupon book from their little ones. The holiday’s origins date back to the 18th century following the American Civil War as Julia Ward Howe and other anti-war activists fought to promote Mothers’ Peace Day. 

How It Started: The First Mother’s Day 

Anna Jarvis house in Grafton WV ©Daniel Friend

Howe dedicated the celebration to the eradication of war and penned her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870 as an appeal to mothers to spare their sons from the ravages of wartime violence and death. She also encouraged all mothers to leave their homes for one day a year and work for peace in their communities. She translated her proclamation into several languages and traveled around the world promoting Mother’s Day for Peace. Events in Boston, Massachusetts, and around the United States lasted for the next several years with Howe at the helm until she passed away. Upon her death, another woman fought to promote the holiday’s official recognition in the following decades.  

Anna Jarvis was born in 1864 in Webster, West Virginia, and she was raised by her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, a peace activist who organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs during the Civil War to address public health issues (such as better sanitation and alerts for disease-bearing insects and polluted water). Ann Reeves Jarvis’ efforts were not limited to wartime. She was passionate about improving her community and organized events and activities to promote public health initiatives and good hygiene practices. Because of her work ethic and compassion towards helping others, she was well-respected in the community and her work had a significant impact on many people, including her daughter Anna.

When Ann Reeves Jarvis passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis decided to memorialize her mother’s lifelong activism by campaigning for a holiday to honor all mothers. Anna Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day celebration on May 10, 1908, in Grafton, West Virginia. 

The event was well-received, and Jarvis continued to promote the holiday through letter-writing campaigns to newspapers, politicians, and several presidents (President Taft and President Theodore Roosevelt among them). The custom quickly spread to church congregations in 45 states and abroad in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, a national holiday.

The Big Shift from Compassion to Commercial 

In the early years of Mother’s Day, the holiday was celebrated with simple, heartfelt gestures, such as giving a card or a small gift, visiting one’s mother, or attending religious services together. However, over time, the holiday became increasingly commercialized. The modern Mother’s Day, with its apolitical message, was forgotten and replaced by an annual expression of sentimentality. The advertising industry led the charge by promoting the purchase of flowers, cards, and other gifts as a way to show appreciation for mothers. 

Anna Jarvis was not pleased with this turn of events, as she felt that the commercialization of the holiday detracted from its intended purpose – a day to celebrate the love and sacrifice of mothers. When the price of carnations increased, she released a statement condemning florists: “WHAT WILL YOU DO to rout charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations?” As early as 1920, she began discouraging people from purchasing flowers altogether. And before it became a national holiday she claimed copyright on the phrase “Second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day”, and threatened to sue anyone who marketed it without permission.

Anna spent the rest of her life campaigning against the commercialization of Mother’s Day until she passed away in 1948 having not achieved her goal. However, her efforts were futile and the influence of the advertising industry only increased over time. 

How It’s Going: Today’s Modern Marketing Influence 

Mom and daughter sharing gifts ©Chay_Tee

Today the rise of e-commerce has also made it easier for people to buy gifts online and have them delivered directly to their mothers. Social media platforms are filled with advertisements for Mother’s Day sales, and influencers collaborate with brands to promote their products. One significant example of Mother’s Day commercialization is the jewelry industry ad sales. During the weeks leading up to the holiday, many jewelers put their merchandise on sale to entice big purchases from customers. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), “Jewelry will dominate Mother’s Day spending…with consumers predicted to spend an estimated $31.7 billion on gifts, flowers, and special outings in honor of the woman of the day in each family.” 

Mother’s Day is considered good business–With some 144 million people planning to spend a minimum of $75 on their mom in 2023, retailers are on track to earn approximately $11B from Mother’s Day shoppers.

While some people still choose to celebrate the holiday with simple gestures and homemade gifts, the pressure to buy expensive gifts and participate in consumer culture can be overwhelming. This shift towards commercialization has caused controversy, with some arguing that it detracts from the true sentiment of the holiday. Merchandise companies and the advertising departments that promote their products are much to blame for this intense societal need t consume. 

The glossy print ads featuring the latest merchandise and apparel, email marketing campaigns offering limited-time deals and countdowns, and billboards with diamond-studded images at every other highway exit can create a sense of inadequacy in people who feel like they need to make expensive purchases to properly express their appreciation for their mothers. Despite the advertising industry capitalizing on Mother’s Day consumerism, the holiday remains an important day to honor and appreciate the mothers in our lives. 

The True Spirit of Mother’s Day  

Whether it’s through a homemade card, a simple phone call, or a thoughtful gift, taking the time to show our love and gratitude for the sacrifices and contributions that mothers make is always a meaningful gesture. Moving away from the commercialization aspect of the holiday and not giving advertisers so much credit for popularizing the day also honors the legacy of Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna Jarvis– a true example of a powerful mother-daughter team that prioritized doing good rather than receiving goods. It’s important to remember that the true spirit of Mother’s Day lies in expressing our sincere love and appreciation, rather than in the products we purchase.

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