Mother’s Day means big business for retailers. Last year, shoppers spent an average of $180 per mom. In fact, more people purchase flowers and plants for Mother’s Day than for any other holiday, except Christmas and Hanukkah. This year alone, Americans will spend an estimated $23.1 billion for their mothers collectively.
With that much money at stake, is it any wonder that the woman who invented Mother’s Day went insane and was locked up by the very floral industry she helped create? Yes, you read that right. The origins behind this seemingly quaint and wholesome holiday are anything but. It’s a tale of treachery, madness and conspiracy that Hallmark will never put in a greeting card. Although if they did, that would be hilarious.
It all began when a daughter lost her mother. The year was 1905 when Anna Jarvis of West Virginia had to lay her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, to rest. Mother Jarvis was an extraordinary woman: during the Civil War, she cared for the wounded on both sides of the conflict, and also tried to orchestrate peace between Union and Confederate moms by forming a “Mother’s Friendship Day.”
Devastated by her loss, Anna conceived a holiday that would honor not just her mother, but all mothers – a “Mother’s Day” if you will. Cut to May of 1908, when Anna got some financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker to throw the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. Simultaneously, thousands of people attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s stores in Philadelphia.
Wanamaker should’ve been named, “Wanamakermoremoney”… get it? Sigh.
This first Mother’s Day was such a success, Anna was determined to see her holiday added to the national calendar. She argued that American holidays were biased toward male achievements and started a massive letter campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a “special day honoring motherhood.”
By 1912 many states, towns and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Anna established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. This persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day!! And Anna Jarvis lived happily ever after, right??
Ehhh, not quite… You see, Anna originally conceived of Mother’s Day as a day of personal celebration between mothers and families. Her version of the holiday involved simply wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting your mother or attending church services. But this carnation badge was the crack in the greed dam that would soon flood her entire concept with more money than she ever could’ve imagined.
In a way, Anna set herself up for failure. Initially, she took money where she could to help launch and officiate her holiday. The floral industry wisely supported her Mother’s Day movement, and she didn’t think twice about accepting their donations and even spoke at their conventions. With each subsequent Mother’s Day, the wearing of these white carnations became a must-have item. So much so, florists across the country quickly sold out of them every year around Mother’s Day – so what did the titans of Big Flower do? They came up with an idea to diversify sales by promoting the practice of wearing colorful flowers in honor of living mothers, and white flowers for deceased moms. After all, you really double your profits when you can count the dead as customers.
With such an annual spike in floral sales, it wasn’t long before card companies, jewelers and candy brands hustled their way in to capitalize on this new marketing craze. Blood was in the water, and the sharks were circling…
By 1920 Anna had become disgusted with how her holiday had been commercialized – she wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” Hahahah. In fact, Anna outwardly urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day gifts altogether, and even referred to the florists, greeting card manufacturers and the confectionery industry as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
Perhaps she was right, but one thing is clear: she underestimated who she was up against…
To her credit, Anna wasn’t just all talk – she put her money where her mouth was and launched countless lawsuits against groups that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually spending most of her personal wealth in legal fees. The futile fight began to take its toll on Anna when she was dragged screaming out of a meeting of the charitable American War Mothers by police for disturbing the peace. She was attempting to stop the sale of carnations… yeah.
If it sounds like Anna was starting to lose her marbles over this, you’d be right. She never married, never had kids of her own, instead she became a recluse hoarder who dedicated the rest of her life to destroying the holiday she created – Shakespeare AF.
In 1943, Anna began organizing a petition to officially rescind Mother’s Day from the national calendar, even sending scathing letters to Eleanor Roosevelt to abolish it. However, these efforts were halted when Anna was committed to the Marshall Square Mental Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she spent her last days deeply in debt. Anna died there in 1948, and was never told that her bill for her time at the asylum was partly paid for by a group of grateful florists. #Irony
However, there are some who suspect a more sinister angle to this apparent act of altruism – that people connected with both the floral and greeting card industries paid the bills to keep Anna Jarvis in the sanitarium.
Yup. No one ever thinks twice about Big Flower and Big Card – but behind all those colorful, sweet-smelling petals, and between the lines of every mass-produced sentiment, lurks a holiday founded on enough greed to destroy the very woman who created it.
Happy Mother’s Day!!!
PS… I’d like to dedicate this blog to my mother, Anne, who insisted I not buy her any flowers this year. Normally I ignore that request, but this year I’ll just Skype with her instead. Oh, and send her this blog.