Anna Jarvis Worked Hard to Make Mother’s Day a National Holiday

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives to learn more about Anna Jarvis and her hard work getting Mother’s Day established as a national holiday.

Mother’s Day is this Sunday. It is time to get the shopping for mom’s gifts done. Buy a sweet card, get some flowers, maybe some nice jewelry or other token of your appreciation. You will probably call home or drive over for a visit with your mother. It is a day to celebrate mom. The fact that Mother’s Day is a National Holiday is thanks largely to the efforts of Anna Jarvis, whose story can be found in the pages of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

photo of Anna Jarvis

Photo: Anna Jarvis. Credit: Olairian; Wikimedia Commons.

Anna M. Jarvis spent seven years pushing for a national holiday to celebrate mothers, after her own mother died. Congress finally passed the requisite law on 8 May 1914, and President Woodrow Wilson issued the official proclamation the next day. Anna began her efforts in 1907, and had successfully convinced 5-6 million people to join in the feel-good festival honoring mothers as early as 1908. They wore a simple white carnation as a token of appreciation for mothers.

article about Anna Jarvis and the first celebration of Mother's Day in the U.S., Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 20 May 1908

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 20 May 1908, page 8

Anna desired the holiday to celebrate her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. Ann was also a social activist and had been the founder of a “Mother’s Friendly Day to weld families split by the Civil War.” Ann gave birth to 13 children, many of whom died very young. Ann and Anna were very close and when Ann died 9 May 1905, Anna mourned deeply.

Three years later she made her initial push for a larger memorial service to honor all mothers. The idea was a success and 5-6 million people were estimated to have participated in the celebration. They made a visual show of appreciation for their mothers by wearing a single white carnation.

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Anna eventually quit her job in order to campaign for a national holiday. The idea caught like wildfire and just seven years after she began her campaign, the second Sunday in May was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson for the purpose. Nearly every country around the globe also began instituting its own version of a Mother’s Day celebration. Although not the first to champion the idea for Mother’s Day, Anna was probably more successful instituting it than she ever imagined.

article about Anna Jarvis and Mother's Day, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 27 November 1948

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 27 November 1948, page 4

Despite being successful in her efforts to bring attention to motherhood, Anna was never able to participate in that experience herself because she never had children of her own.  Her endless efforts also led to personal financial challenges, because her seven-year campaign turned into a life-long no-holds-barred battle against the commercialization of the new national holiday, which absolutely horrified her. Anna’s simple, heartfelt symbolic gesture of honoring mothers with a single white carnation was quickly overshadowed in the landslide of marketing campaigns around the new celebration.

Anna was disgusted by the commercialization of Mother’s Day, the pre-printed store-bought cards, and the impersonal gifts. She campaigned hard, with the same energy she had devoted to the first seven years of getting the day recognized, to push her ideas of forgoing the shallow tokens in favor of making a heartfelt connection with one’s mother. It was a battle she did not win. Mother’s Day is one of the most lucrative holidays for phone companies, the travel industry, card makers, florists, spas, and more.

Anna “once threatened to sue Governor Al Smith of New York over plans for a gigantic Mother’s Day meeting in 1923.” She even “tangled with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt over a rival Mother’s Day committee.”

Sadly, Anna died a “lonely spinster…partially deaf, blind and penniless” at the age of 84.

obituary for Anna Jarvis, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1948

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1948, page 37

Perhaps this year a homemade card, a single white carnation, and some quality time together with mom might be the better way to celebrate mom and Anna Jarvis.

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Mother of the Year Awards in the News

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about various “Mother of the Year” awards throughout the country.

Did you ever read about some sort of honor or award in the newspaper and wonder what it was all about? With Mother’s Day fast approaching I remembered that “Mother of the Year” is one award that I have often seen in various news articles describing numerous women. But what does the title Mother of the Year mean? Some research in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives reveals interesting facts and stories about this family honor.

The Genesis of American Mother of the Year

While many different groups have named mothers to this lofty title, there is one group that is in charge of the official American Mother of the Year award. The Golden Rule Foundation, founded by retailer James Cash Penney (JCPenney stores), started the American Mothers Committee. According to the American Mothers website:

“The idea of a Mothers Committee began in 1933 when America was in the middle of a Great Depression, and women were taking on many roles in society in order to make ends meet for their families. Businessman J.C. Penney enlisted four prominent New Yorkers, including famous clergyman and author Norman Vincent Peale, to form a committee under his Golden Rule Foundation called the American Mothers Committee. He believed mothers were key to the family and by honoring them the entire nation would be strengthened.”

The first Mother of the Year award, initially called the Typical American Mother, was presented in 1935 by Honorary Chairwoman Sara Delano Roosevelt (mother of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to Lucy Keen Johnson (Mrs. Fletcher Johnson), formerly of Georgia. Of the award, Mrs. Johnson said she accepted it “not for myself alone but for millions of American mothers who are making our land a great nation.” Mrs. Johnson was the mother of six children and grandmother to 14.

article about Mother of the Year Lucy Keen Johnson, Boston Herald newspaper article 13 May 1935

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 May 1935, page 10

Making the Grade as the Best Mom

So what qualifications must a Mother of the Year have? Well this article from a 1949 Texas newspaper explains how one can be nominated for the Texas Mother of the Year. The winner of that honor would then compete with other state mothers for the national title awarded by the Golden Rule Foundation.

article about nominations for the Texas Mother of the Year award, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 16 January 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 16 January 1949, section 3, page 4

According to this old newspaper article, an individual or a group could nominate a mother who had the following four qualifications:

  • She must be a successful mother, as evidenced by the character, achievements and maturity of her children.
  • She must embody traits of courage, cheerfulness, spiritual and moral strength, patience, affection, kindness, understanding, [and] homemaking.
  • She must have a sense of social and world relations, and must have been active for her own community’s betterment or in some other service for public benefit.
  • She should be equipped to make friends readily and to meet people easily in connection with her duties as the American Mother of the Year.

The following 1958 California nominations announcement for Mother of the Year includes the additional qualifications of being an active member of a religious body, exemplifying the precepts of the Golden Rule, and having no children under the age of 15 years.

article about nominations for the California Mother of the Year award, Los Angeles Tribune newspaper article 14 February 1958

Los Angeles Tribune (Los Angeles, California), 14 February 1958, page 10

A Little Motherly Advice

It probably comes as no surprise that once a Mother of the Year was crowned, she offered her motherly advice in subsequent newspaper articles, such as this example from a Washington paper.

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The 1949 American Mother of the Year, 60-year-old Pearle Owens Gillis from Texas – who was the mother of six and foster mother of eight – gave this motherly advice: “A mother should stay with her children, and not work outside the home when the children are very young.” She went on to say that for her, she would rather raise children than anything else.

article about 1949 American Mother of the Year Pearle Owens Gillis, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 25 April 1949

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 25 April 1949, page 13

Mrs. Gillis’s predecessor, 1948 American Mother of the Year Helen Gartside Hines of Springfield, Illinois, was an author who penned her advice in the form of newspaper articles like this one from an Illinois paper, entitled “Child Training in Home Urged.” In this historical newspaper article, which many modern-day teachers will agree with, she makes the point that parents cannot assume that schools and churches will do everything to train children – some of that training needs to happen in the home:

Two principles which, in my opinion, children should be taught very early are respect for authority and a consideration for the rights of others. If they haven’t learned this before they enter our public schools they are a real discipline problem to their teachers and a menace to the other children.

Another of her ideas still rings true today:

Children have no prejudice, racial or religious. Children take people for what they are. It is only as they absorb the ideas of their elders that they begin to make distinctions and to assume a superiority over minority groups. Here again the pre-school training in the home can set the pace for all their after life.

parenting advice from 1948 American Mother of the Year Helen Gartside Hines, Register-Republic newspaper article 7 May 1948

Register-Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 7 May 1948, page 10

Mrs. Hines had ten children, nine of which served in World War II – including two daughters.

Other Mothers of the Year

While I have focused on the American Mother of the Year program in this article, there were of course other groups who named women as their choice for “Mother of the Year.” One example is this short article from a 1949 California newspaper announcing Mrs. Catherine T. Loeffler as the 1949 Catholic Mother of the Year by the National Catholic Conference on Family Life. This Massachusetts mother had 12 children, 10 of which were still living. Six of her children had chosen a religious vocation, including five of her sons who were priests.

article about 1949 Catholic Mother of the Year Catherine T. Loeffler, San Diego Union newspaper article 7 May 1949

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 7 May 1949, page 4

In some cases a Mother of the Year may have overcome some obstacles. This 1958 Texas newspaper article announces the Dallas Polio Mother of the Year awardee, Mrs. A. J. MacMaster, who became a victim of polio at the age of three. Her advice to others was to “Forget yourself, think of others.” Mrs. MacMaster, an attorney, had advanced educational degrees including a master’s degree from Yale and a law degree.

article about 1958 Dallas Polio Mother of the Year Mrs. A. J. MacMaster, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 2 January 1958

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 2 January 1958, section 3, page 1

While some groups who named a Mother of the Year were national or statewide, others were much smaller, like this instance of the Tyler Street Methodist Church Mother of the Year for Mother’s Day 1949. Their honoree was 73-year-old Mrs. C. H. C. Anderson, who is described as “tiny and vivacious.” She was to receive a flower bouquet as her award.

article about 1949 Mother of the Year Mrs. C. H. C. Anderson, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 7 May 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 7 May 1949, section 2, page 14

Is Your Mother a Mother of the Year?

You can nominate her for the official title by going to the American Mothers website.

Did you or a woman in your family tree ever receive recognition for being an exemplary mom? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Plattsburgh, NY newspaper archive (1796-1922) live on GenealogyBank.

Plattsburgh, NY newspaper archive (1796-1922) live on GenealogyBank.

GenealogyBank has added the Northern Herald (1812-1814) to its online collection of Plattsburgh, NY newspapers. These digital facsimile editions include complete copies of each issue and are searchable from a special new link:

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