The ideal father is hardworking, fun-loving, a good provider, understanding, wise, sometimes stern and, above all, inspiring. Yet a century ago, the popular image of the father was less radiant.
Groucho Marx observed that in those days, there were many hymns to motherhood, but “nobody ever wrote any song about fathers. Father was the town schlemiel in almost every place.” As the popular ditty of the time went —
“Everybody works but father and he sits around all day,
“Feet in front of the fire - smoking his pipe of clay,
“Mother takes in washing, so does sister Ann,
“Everybody works at our house but for my old man.”
In 1906, Joseph Lehman, father of seven, was so driven to despair by his wife and kids singing this song that he jumped in the Des Moines River.
As the popularity of Mother’s Day grew, people naturally began to discuss a counterpart for dads. In 1908, the Baltimore Sun asked that families “recognize that father, with all his frailties and limitations, is a useful factor in civilization - and in the domestic economy.” The Sun insisted that “the virtues of the fathers shall receive due recognition. They may eat onions, they may wear plain clothes, they may not know that more than one fork is desirable for a dinner course, but they are the salt of the earth. Lift our voices in behalf of this downtrodden creature.”
The Herald of Palestine, Texas, weighed in, noting that “for as little as you may see of him around the house, he is still in a limited way at least an important part of the family machinery. He goes along, plodding maybe, making the family income and paying the expenses, swearing that mother’s hat is becoming when he knows he is a perjurer … and giving Johnny the price of a new red necktie when he knows Johnny has no business wearing red. Yes, count old father in. He may not count in the social scale, but you would miss his regular income.”
In 1909, Mrs. Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Wash., inspired by a Mother’s Day sermon, began to promote the Father’s Day concept, suggesting that fathers be honored with red roses worn on the lapel.
The Lowell Sun, writing about her efforts, noted that “daddy used to be represented as all sorts of a bad ‘un, with an ineradicable tendency to spend his wages instead of taking them dutifully home on Saturday night. Now it’s ‘My father was a grand old man,’ and ‘Pin a rose on daddy, dear.’ ” The Syracuse Herald suggested as alternatives to the rose, “give the old man a good cigar, or, if he doesn’t smoke, a nice, red apple.”
Bills promoting Father’s Day began to appear in many state legislatures, and the proposals were met with a degree of humor. The Nebraska State Journal noted that “father had his day long ago.” The Albany Argus suggested that “rent day of each month be observed as Father’s day” and that people wear canceled checks on their lapels. The Monitor of Madison County, Montana, noted, with a nod to the women’s suffrage movement, that Election Day in November “will remain father’s day for a few years yet.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer opined that rather than a Father’s Day, “wait … better make it night.”
The holiday caught on gradually, first in churches and localities, in the states, and by 1924 received the endorsement of President Coolidge as a day “calculated to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and also to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligation.” But for Mrs. Dodd, the holiday had a much simpler objective. “A little thoughtfulness of this kind,” she wrote, “just to show them how much we appreciate all they have done for us, will make them happier.” And that’s what Father’s Day is all about.