Like mothers themselves, the concept of “Mother’s Day” has been around since ancient times. Greeks held an annual festival to Cymbele, a mother of their gods; Romans held an annual “Matronalia” celebration in honor of Juno. But believe it or not, a formal “Mother’s Day” was not part of America’s calendar until 1914!

This is not to say that mothers were never important to our nation. When John Adams was working on our Constitution, for example, his wife Abigail famously urged him to “remember the ladies.” And as the nineteenth century dawned, women were in the forefront of our nation’s expansion, whether speaking out for human rights or tending their families as they drove across an unmapped West. But in the hustle and push of these great movements, our nation never quite got around to marking a special time for a Mother’s Day celebration.

Until, that is, the turbulent second half of the nineteenth century, one of the most poignant chapters in American women’s “herstory.” Indeed, our official holiday was inspired by Anna Jarvis, in honor of her mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, a homemaker from West Virginia and an “unsung hero” of the Civil War.

The “Mothers” of Mother’s Day

In 1861, as the Civil War broke out, Ann Marie Jarvis and her husband were living in Grafton, West Virginia, a small town perched right on the border of North and South. Throughout the war, soldiers from both North and South came through town on the major railway lines that ran through it. An estimated 10,000 troops were encamped around Grafton, many of them in a field right across from the Jarvis home. For Ann Marie’s community, the conflict was even more complex because it was not unusual for neighbors and even close relatives to have sons fighting on different sides.

In the midst of this crisis, Ann Marie, herself the mother of eleven children (only four of whom lived to adulthood), led “Women’s Friendship Clubs” of fellow mothers who pledged to help every soldier, “whether Blue or Gray,” and saved thousands of lives by nursing wounded troops, and by teaching sanitation techniques which were still very new at that time. After the war, Ann Marie again stepped up to lead her community in a special day-long service to honor soldiers and their families from both sides.

An Official Celebration

In 1907, two years after Ann Marie’s death, her daughter Anna began a crusade in her memory. The first official Mother’s Day service was held on May 10, 1908, at the Jarvis family’s longtime church, St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal in Grafton. Anna donated 500 white carnations—symbolic of the pure love in mothers’ hearts—for a day “to brighten the lives of good mothers. To have them know we appreciate them, though we do not show it as often as we ought.”

Anna’s inspiration caught on quickly.  By early 1914, a “Mother’s Day” holiday had been declared in 46 states. On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson, honoring Ann Marie Jarvis and all the other women who had given so much to the nation,  proclaimed it a national holiday.

Our “Modern” Mother’s Day

Nowadays, Mother’s Day is a bonanza for retailers: Americans spend an estimated $2.6 billion on flowers and $68 million on cards. According to the National Restaurant Association Mother’s Day is the most popular day of the year to eat out!

For Anna Jarvis, however, and for many other woman activists at the turn of the century, this commercialization would have been a disappointment. As early as 1870, the poet Julia Ward Howe, who also wrote the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” proclaimed that Mother’s Day should be a time for women to “solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means/Whereby the great human family can live in peace.” Anna Jarvis, who lived to 1948, spent the last years of her life railing. “I wanted it to be a day,” she said, “of sentiment, not profit.”

So, parents, if you’re planning to head out for brunch this Mother’s Day, we certainly wouldn’t urge you to cancel. But the spirit of the “mothers” of Mother’s Day, we hope you’ll encourage your children to stop and take appreciative note of everything Moms do. Handmade gifts and cards are especially good ways for kids to slow down and celebrate. This is also a wonderful time to honor the many mothers who have come before ours, leaving a legacy of love, hope, and courage. As Supreme Court Justice and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself a survivor of the Civil War, wrote, “[It is] mothers most of all, who carry the keys of our souls.”