Mother’s Day: Not what founder had in mind
Published - 05/08/14 - 01:12 PM | 2295 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The National Retail Federation says Americans spend more than $20 billion on Mother’s Day gifts and treats every year, adding that the outlook for 2014 (Sunday, May 11) is about the same. That figure is dwarfed, to say the least, by the $210 billion we fork over during the winter holidays. Still, the “billion” is the daunting part — lay mom’s bucks end to end, and they’d literally stretch about 40 times around the world, or to the moon and back. 

And to the moon again.

That’s the problem. To hear the day’s founder tell it, 14 cents spent in mom’s honor is 14 cents too many. The late Anna Marie Jarvis pretty much pooped her own party in later life amid her disgust over the commercialization of the event. 

“I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit,” she once lamented, calling the profiteers “termites” and dedicating the last 30 of her 84 years to sabotaging the honor she helped create. Indeed, she and her blind sister Elsinore spent the family inheritance on their failed campaign — billions of dollars later, Mother’s Day is the third most profitable day of the year, trailing only the winter holidays and Valentine’s Day in total haul.

It all started innocently enough in 1907, two years after the death of Jarvis’ mother (also named Anna). The younger woman, a native of Taylor County, W.Va., saw to it that her mom’s last wish — the establishment of a day to honor all the nation’s mothers, living and dead, as the givers of life and comfort — was first marked at a modest church service, during which she passed out a white carnation to each of the 500 mothers in attendance. On May 10, 1908, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Grafton, W.Va. held a service feting Grafton’s moms.

That year, influential Philadelphia businessman John Wanamaker joined Anna’s efforts in creating a national campaign. Soon after, a bill proposing the establishment of Mother’s Day made it as far as the U.S. Senate floor.

The legislators failed to pass the measure — but by 1909, 46 states informally observed Mother’s Day, and the bill’s reintroduction was only a matter of time.

In 1914, on the heels of Anna’s furious campaign efforts, President Wilson signed a joint resolution marking a national observance every second Sunday in May (Anna’s mother died on that day in 1905).

The younger Jarvis’ patience and tenacity had been roundly rewarded, but familiarity would soon breed contempt. Simple good wishes took deleterious wing, landing on printed cards, inside candy boxes and at overhyped restaurants. Even the otherwise pious Wanamaker, who by now had spearheaded the big Wanamaker department store chain (and would eventually become U.S. postmaster general), eagerly profited from the sale of Mother’s Day goods, just as he would over the year’s other major holidays. 

In 1923, Jarvis unsuccessfully sued New York Gov. Al Smith to stop a Mother’s Day fundraiser; years later, she vigorously campaigned against the issuance of a Mother’s Day postage stamp and was arrested for disturbing the peace during a Mother’s Day flower sale. Even as the years brought surges in revenue, Jarvis’ anti-holiday rhetoric grew to fever pitch. 

“A printed card,” Jarvis said, “means nothing except that you’re 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.”

Ironically, and unknown to Jarvis, the Florists Exchange — a major player in the Mother’s Day flower trade — picked up Jarvis’ nursing home tab. Blind, broke and childless, Jarvis died in 1948, rife with the discouragement she’d experienced amid the perceived ruination of her dream. Perhaps it’s just as well. Today, Mother’s Day is celebrated in more than 80 countries, presumably with the same commercial zeal reflected in those billions of American dollars.

As for me, I think Anna overstated her case. Flowers, after all, are an indispensable part of the human experience and a stable ecosystem; their exchange is presumably a gesture of love and respect, which makes them an especially appropriate Mother’s Day tribute. And yes, you and I are as guilty as the next guy of dipping into that candy box — but c’mon. It’s the thought that counts, and it’s a cinch mom offered you the goodies of which you eagerly help relieve her every second Sunday in May.

But Jarvis’ distaste is also understandable. There’s a gluttony about such commercial success, and it doesn’t constrain itself to Mother’s Day, Christmas or any single day of the year. Jarvis learned this lesson the hard way — and she died amid the belief that she’d inadvertently placed a sacred trust in a nationful of the wrong hands.

— Martin Jones Westlin is interim editor of La Jolla Village News.
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