DIBACCO: The first Mother’s Day

A century later, cards and candy still fall short

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The first national observance of Mother's Day in the United States in 1914 was a national embarrassment. The date set by congressional resolution and White House proclamation — namely, the second Sunday in May (May 10, 1914) — was given little attention by both Congress and President Woodrow Wilson.

At the time, the nation was involved in a dispute with Mexico, and the sending of American troops there attracted front-page news. The president’s proclamation, which didn’t even qualify for enough importance to be included in his State Papers and Addresses (1918), wasn’t issued until Saturday, May 9, providing little time for a proper celebration.

The New York Times, for example, buried the announcement in a two-inch story on Page 15 of its Sunday edition, with the headline and secondary headline: “This is Mother's Day — Display the Flag Outside Buildings and Homes.”

It was an even bigger disappointment to Anna Jarvis, whose mother had campaigned since 1868 for commemoration of mothers. Although Jarvis had been successful in getting her home state of West Virginia to establish a Mother's Day in 1912, it was the national observance that she had hoped would elevate mothers to a special place in the nation.

But liberal reformers of the early 20th century — the Progressives — paid little heed to moms, especially certain would-be moms. Many Progressives subscribed to the pseudoscience of eugenics, which insisted that race breeding was applicable to humans. This led 29 states (Indiana was first in 1909) to pass laws that permitted sterilization of wards of the state afflicted with what was dubbed “hereditary insanity.” In other words, advocates hoped to eliminate social ills by eliminating “mental defectives.”

Virginia’s 1924 law was tested by one inmate of a mental institution, Carrie Buck, who, together with her mother and daughter, took the law all the way to the Supreme Court, where a liberal justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote for the court in upholding the statute in 1927:

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices … in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

In another way, the commercialized decade of the 1920s wasn’t conducive to the kind of Mother's Day that Jarvis had in mind. She insisted that it be a Mother's Day, meaning an individual and personal celebration, rather than Mothers’ Day. She expected Americans to attend church on that day, wearing a red carnation if their mothers were alive and a white one if deceased. If children were separated from their mothers, it was expected that they would write letters home in honor and remembrance. No cards, no candy.

“A printed card,” Jarvis contended, “means nothing except that you are 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.”

Jarvis wasn’t afraid to do battle with the biggest guns of the land. She crashed the convention of the Associated Retail Confectioners of the United States in Philadelphia in May 1923. “I want to tell you,” she said as she took over the podium to the surprise of the delegates, “that you are using a beautiful idea as a means of profiteering.” Exasperated with Jarvis‘ lengthy rebuke, the convention recessed to ensure that she would depart.

To be sure, Mother's Day 2014 isn’t mired in the issues that confronted Anna Jarvis, but it is still a time to think about gifts and, most of all, their obvious shortcomings, perhaps best illustrated by an anonymous quote: “No gift to your mother,” it begins, “can ever equal her gift to you: life.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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