For the mother of Mother's Day, it's just never been right
May 11, 2008 8:00 AM
James J. Lee/Associated Press
Cindi Mason, director of the International Mother's Day Shrine, at the shrine in Grafton, W. Va.
By Cristina Rouvalis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
-- Anna Jarvis never had children, but she became the mother of Mother's Day, giving birth to the holiday during a serene church ceremony in her hometown 100 years ago.
At first, her creation was perfect and pure. People honored their mothers the way she envisioned it -- with a white carnation, a symbol of maternal purity, a handwritten note or a day off.
But then her holiday started acting like a rebellious teenager, selling out to the flower and card industry, leaving Miss Jarvis bitter and disillusioned. She ended her life in a mental asylum.
The story of Miss Jarvis and the holiday that she couldn't control come to life in two exhibits more than 20 miles south of Morgantown. The International Mother's Day Shrine memorializes the first Mother's Day service on May 10, 1908, the anniversary of the death of Miss Jarvis' mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis.
Four miles away from Grafton in Webster is the Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum, a lovingly restored wooden Civil War-era house. You can practically feel the strong will of Miss Jarvis seeping through the 154-year-old walls.
"Women were not supposed to go out and speak in public," said Olive Crow-Dadisman, museum curator. "Anna would go out and talk about her mother and Mother's Day. A lot of the time, she was laughed at and heckled.
"Men would write her: 'I love and revere my mother, but she does not need a day off.' "
Miss Jarvis likely would cringe if she could see Mother's Day today.
The simple white carnation handed out to mothers in the former Andrews Methodist Church 100 years ago has given way to modern marketing -- crowded department store Mother's Day sales, restaurant pitches for elaborate brunches and dinners, ornate floral bouquets and rows upon rows of Mother's Day cards, instead of the handwritten note she urged. On average, Americans are expected to spend $138 each on mom this Mother's Day, ringing up $15.8 billion in sales.
As Mrs. Crow-Dadisman figures it, "Anna is probably flipping in her grave like crazy now."
In her mother's honor
In her day, Anna Jarvis was a public figure and irresistible newspaper copy as she crashed confectioners' conferences, broke up a War Mothers' rally and threatened lawsuits -- all in the name of saving her beloved Mother's Day from encroachers.
But today, the colorful history of Anna Jarvis has faded from public view even in some pockets of Grafton, home of Anna Jarvis Elementary School.
Schools sometimes gloss over this piece of history, said Cynthia Mason, program coordinator of the International Mother's Day Shrine, a converted church.
"People don't know the history of Mother's Day. It is a little bit like Groundhog Day," said Ms. Mason, who is trying to get the story out. "You observe it, but you don't know how it started."
Where the myth of Anna Jarvis ends and the truth begins is hard to determine. Rumors circulate that Miss Jarvis started the day to assuage the guilt of fighting with her mother, something Mrs. Crow-Dadisman debunks.
"People who supposedly lived next door to her said they heard her screaming at her mother," said Mrs. Crow-Dadisman. "But they were not old enough to remember her."
Anna Jarvis was born in the two-story wooden house in Webster on May 1, 1864, before her family moved to Grafton. The 10th of the 13 children of Ann Marie and Granville Jarvis, she was one of only four of the Jarvis children who survived, Mrs. Crow-Dadisman said.
Devastated by the high infant mortality rate, Ann Marie Jarvis turned to her brother, Dr. James Reeves. He educated her on how unsanitary conditions -- polluted wells, outdoor toilets, dirty diapers -- were leading to outbreaks of dysentery, cholera and measles.
So the 26-year-old Mrs. Jarvis traveled by buggy to teach sanitation to mothers in the nearby towns of Pruntytown, Philippi and Fetterman. Women who joined her Mothers Friendship Clubs learned about cleaning diapers, boiling milk and bathing regularly.
Mrs. Jarvis also became a unifying figure during the Civil War in Taylor County, an area torn by Confederate and Union loyalties. The war pitted neighbor against neighbor. She met with her mothers' clubs and they agreed to nurse soldiers from both sides.
After the war ended, the violence between neighbors continued. People had been killed by sniper fire and the town was on edge. So Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mother's Friendship Day in Pruntytown, asking each mother to bring a soldier.
Tensions were high when the Confederate and Union soldiers showed up in the town square with guns. But Mrs. Jarvis, dressed in the gray of the Confederacy and a friend dressed in Union blue asked the band to play "Dixie" and then the "Star- Spangled Banner." Then the soft-spoken woman urged the soldiers to put down their arms before the band played "Auld Lang Syne," reducing the crowd to tears.
"She could convince the devil to put down its pitchfork," Mrs. Crow-Dadisman said. "She just had a way about her."
Her daughter, Anna, had an independent mind, too. The fashionably dressed young woman attended college at Augusta Female Seminary in Staunton, Va. (now Mary Baldwin College), where she met Woodrow Wilson. He lived nearby and became her lifelong correspondent and ally.
Miss Jarvis returned to Grafton to teach for seven years, before moving to Philadelphia and working for an insurance company, joining her brother, Claude, who ran a successful taxi business.
Her father died in 1902, and he left Anna $400,000, a hefty inheritance for the day, so that she could care for both her mother and her sister, Lillian. Her mother became so weak that Anna paid for 24-hour nursing care for her. "She visited her a few times a day," Mrs. Crow-Dadisman said.
Her beloved mother died in May 9, 1905 -- the second Sunday in May.
Motherhood as 'sacrifice'
So the grief-stricken daughter established Mother's Day to fulfill her mother's wishes. Legend has it that, as a 12-year-old, she had overheard her mother's express her wish for an observance for mothers while she was teaching a Sunday school class on mothers of the Bible, said Katharine Antolini, a history lecturer at West Virginia Wesleyan University.
Miss Jarvis' image of Mother's Day was very specific. It was a singular Mother's Day -- not Mothers' Day. "She didn't see it as a holiday," Ms. Antolini said. "She saw it as an intimate day between you and your mom."
Interestingly, during her Mother's Day crusade, Miss Jarvis rarely mentioned her late mother's accomplishments as a Civil War diplomat and public health advocate. "Anna idolized motherhood in a way that only a woman without children could," Ms. Antolini said. "It was a very sentimental and childlike view. It was motherhood as the ultimate sacrifice."
It wasn't until Miss Jarvis enlisted the help of a man -- wealthy Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker -- that her idea for a maternal commemoration took off.
One hundred years ago, on the morning of May 10, 1908, the first Mother's Day celebration was held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton -- now the shrine -- where her mother taught Sunday school. Anna didn't attend, but sent 500 white carnations, her mother's favorite flower.
Later that day, at 2 p.m., she attended a large ceremony at Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia. For years, Mrs. Crow-Dadisman said, Grafton and Philadelphia fought over the honor of the first Mother's Day celebration, until the tiny West Virginia town of about 5,400 prevailed.
But Miss Jarvis wanted a national observance day, writing leaders in every state and around the world. She fired off so many letters that she bought the house next door just to store her correspondence.
Her persistence paid off. In 1914, President Wilson, her longtime friend, signed a proclamation stating, "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.
But her triumph was short-lived as Miss Jarvis watched the florist, card and candy industries cash in on Mother's Day. In her mind, they were co-opting her baby, twisting heartfelt sentiment into crass commercialism. She crashed a confectioners' convention and chastised them for the millions they made from her idea.
The ultimate overprotective mother, she had a long list of people she considered "anti-mother propagandists" including charities that tried to raise Mother's Day funds.
"For her, Mother's Day was her legal property," Ms. Antolini said. "She claimed to have it trademarked by 1912, but I have not found any proof of it."
She even demanded that people go through her Mother's Day International Association for approval of their celebrations. When New York Gov. Al Smith planned a huge Mother's Day celebration in 1923, she threatened to sue him to stop it. The event was called off.
Miss Jarvis waged war on the American War Mothers, whom she considered infringers after they held their own Mothers' Day (the plural form). In 1932, she broke up a rally of the group as it sold carnations, and was dragged away by police and briefly brought to jail, Mrs. Crow-Dadisman said.
Not exactly a wholesome-as-apple-pie Mother's Day story.
Then came the ultimate slap -- a Mother's Day stamp that slighted her. The American War Mothers successfully lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt and Postmaster James Farley for a Mother's Day stamp that showed American-born painter James McNeill Whistler's portrait of his mother, a vase of white carnations and the words, "In memory and in honor of Mothers of America."
Miss Jarvis' only consolation was that she prevailed in keeping the words "Mother's Day" off the stamp.
"She was very formidable," Ms. Antolini said. "This was a woman sending telegrams to FDR demanding that he talk to her."
She took on the flower industry. She renounced the carnation, urging people to buy a celluloid flower button instead. In turn, said Ms. Mason, the floral industry called her "a crazy old spinster."
But by the end, she didn't win many of her battles. Mother's Day had a life of its own.
A recluse, she wouldn't see people or be photographed. The once successful businesswoman was broke from her legal battles and thought the Grafton lawyers and bankers had robbed her. She was so upset that she chased a Grafton banker down the street with a broom.
Unable to control her creation, she tried to kill it -- going door-to-door in 1943 asking for signatures for a petition to rescind Mother's Day, Mrs. Crow-Dadisman said.
The next year, an 80-year-old Miss Jarvis was put in the Marshall Square Sanitarium, a now-closed mental asylum. The ultimate irony is that the bill was paid by a group called Floral Exchange, Mrs. Crow-Dadisman said.
Alone and broke, she died in 1948 at the age of 84. Her death certificate listed "congestive heart failure" as the cause of death.
But Mrs. Crow-Dadisman believes she died of a broken heart, sick about what had become of her baby.