Mother’s Day is nearly here. The holiday has a fascinating history of its own, but the ways people have thought about the origins and history of Mother’s Day provides us a great opportunity here at the Buzzkill Institute to talk about the complications of history and memory.

But it also gives us the chance to show how the history of Mother’s Day is closely tied up with such important 19th and 20th century historical issues such as: the American Civil War; international campaigns for disarmament; and peace movements from the late 1860s to the 1920s. And I hope you’ll hear about some important people from the 19th and early 20th centuries who you may not have known, but who deserve a great deal more attention.

As always, our archivists and historians have done yeoman work in providing us with excellent research to present to you. We’re also using Leigh Eric Schmidt’s book Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (1997), which we recommend highly. But the most important scholar of the history of Mother’s Day is Professor Katharine Lane Antolini. And we’ve put her book, Memorializing Motherhood (2014), on the Buzzkill Bookshelf. Check it out.

Celebrations of motherhood and of mothers have a long history in almost all cultures, but the movement to establish a specific date on the calendar for “Mother’s Day” every year started in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Although there were a number of calls for the creation of a “mother’s day,” most of them didn’t succeed, or get government “official” sanction (although that practice was less common in the 19th century than it eventually became).

The Mother’s Day that’s celebrated in the United States was made an official national holiday only in 1914. “Mothering Sunday” had been a religious holiday in Christian churches for centuries, but it referred to the “Mother Church” until the mid-20th century, when popular Mother’s Day observances of motherhood (familiar to us now) sort of merged with religious observances, and “Mothering Sunday” has come to be, more or less, Mother’s Day in many countries.

But ideas for a Mother’s Day, and calls for national observations of a Mother’s Day really started in earnest in the decades after the Civil War. The most famous of these, and the one you’ll often hear referred to as the original Mother’s Day, was proposed by Julia Ward Howe in 1870. Howe was one of the most prominent American poets and writers of the second half of the 19th century, and she is best known as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she wrote in 1861.

In addition to writing literary essays and novels, Howe became increasingly committed (during the 1850s) to the abolition of slavery. In November 1861, Howe and her husband travelled from their home in Boston to Washington DC. The Civil War had already started and DC was surrounded by a protective ring of Union troops. Passing through those lines in the evening, Howe saw “watch fires” and ranks of cannon, and those images made a strong impression on her.

She related this imagery to family friend, and he suggested she write a poem that could be set to the melody of the popular song, “John Brown’s Body.” And so the Battle Hymn of the Republic was born on November 19, 1861. The righteousness of the Union cause was a major reason why Howe wrote the Battle Hymn so strongly and filled it with so many Biblical allusions to freeing slaves. The melody was so well known, and the words to Howe’s Battle Hymn were so stirring, that her hymn quickly became the unofficial anthem of the Union army.

The Battle Hymn made Howe fairly well-known in literary circles during the war, and she published widely about lots of social issues. The horrors of the war played on her mind, however, and Howe became increasingly pacifist after the war ended in 1865. The industrial revolution had helped increase the severity of the war and resulted in much higher casualties than in previous wars. As many of you know, the Civil War (and, in particular, battles like Antietam and Gettysburg) produced shockingly high numbers of dead and wounded. And, far too often, the wounded were maimed in horrific ways. Like many other reformers and writers, Julia Ward Howe started to agitate for international peace and disarmament. Her other major cause was women’s suffrage, the right to vote.

It’s not just a coincidence that Julia Ward Howe brought women’s rights and pacifism together after the Civil War. The horrors of war were made evident by the growing military cemeteries and many survivors permanently disabled. Howe and a number of leaders in women’s rights movements argued forcefully, as mothers and sisters and aunts and grandmothers of those war dead, that women must unite and force male political leaders to disarm their military forces as the first step towards ending war as a means of settling political disputes.

In 1870, in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian War, another industrialized conflict with horrific numbers of dead, Howe wrote, “An Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.” It’s one of the strongest and most moving pacifist appeals written in modern times. We’ve put the full text in the blog post for this episode up on our website (and there are lots of excellent dramatic readings, especially by prominent women, available on YouTube), but I’d like to read a couple important extracts to you.

An Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World

“Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons…

“But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror…

“Arise, then, Christian women of this day! … Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience…

“From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council…”

Very moving and powerful. The “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World” eventually became more commonly known as the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” or the “Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace,” although there were few references to “mothers” and “motherhood” in it. It was a broader plea for all women to campaign for peace.

Among other things, Howe’s call to action was for women to, “leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.” In other words, a call for a major convention of women to discuss how to bring about disarmament and international peace. That meeting never took place, but two years later in 1872, Howe called for the creation of a “Mother’s Day of Peace” to be observed on the 2nd of June every year. That idea, unfortunately, didn’t take hold either.

Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace” is often seen as the start of Mother’s Day observances, or characterized as “the first Mother’s Day.” For example, two prominent peace and disarmament organizations, the Brave New Foundation and the Ploughshares Fund, produced videos in 2007 and 2009 that credited Howe with founding Mother’s Day. They’re all very good, but I particularly like the Ploughshares Fund video because disarmament is that organization’s goal, and Julia Ward Howe argued that disarmament was the means by which the carnage of industrialized warfare could be stopped. But her plea did not result in the establishment of Mother’s Day.

For much of the rest of 19th century, important reformers and social activists made similar suggestions for a “mother’s day” to stress peace and disarmament. But none of these ever gained enough support to become established or gain government approval or popular observance, either in North America or Europe. Public reception of the idea for a “Mother’s Day” improved somewhat in the early years of the 20th century, ironically, in the years leading up to World War I, which, as you know, outstripped the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in terms of brutality and death.

Mother’s Day as it has celebrated and observed in the United States, started in 1908, was observed by all states by 1911, and was made a national holiday in 1914. One of the reasons that Julia Ward Howe’s “Appeal to Womanhood” of 1870 and her 1872 call for a “Mother’s Day of Peace” are often seen as the start of Mother’s Day is what we refer to as “post hoc ergo propter hoc” misunderstanding. It’s the fallacy that if event A was followed by event B, event A caused event B. It seems as if Julia Ward Howe is the founder of Mother’s Day because she called for such a mother’s day in the early 1870s, and now we have a Mother’s Day. So that must have been the start. But it wasn’t.

My buzzkilling this misconception of the development of the Mother’s Day holiday undoubtedly seems like unnecessary chronological nitpicking. But, like so many other things, when we started to dig into history of Mother’s Day, we found it was more complex and more interesting than we thought.

Mother’s Day was started in 1908, as I mentioned earlier. That year, Anna Jarvis of Grafton, West Virginia, held a special church service dedicated to the memory of her mother (who had died three years before).

Anna Jarvis got her inspiration for Mother’s Day from the work of her own mother, Ann Jarvis. Stick with me here, Buzzkillers. It’s easy to confuse the two because of the similarity of their names. Ann Maria Jarvis lived from 1832 to 1905. In 1864 she had a daughter who she named Anna Marie Jarvis (the one who, in 1908 started the movement to create Mother’s Day).

When she was a young mother in 1858, Ann Jarvis formed Mother’s Day Work Clubs in western Virginia to help provide better health and maternity care for pregnant women and young mothers. These clubs ran health education programs, helped families where mothers had debilitating illnesses, inspected milk and other foods for purity, pushed for rural sanitation, and fought infant mortality. When the Civil War broke out (and the northwestern counties of Virginia broke away to form West Virginia), Ann Jarvis and her Mothers’ Day Work Clubs took care of wounded, sick, and hungry soldiers from both sides. After the war, the Mothers’ Day Work Clubs held a “Mothers Friendship Day” for Union and Confederate veterans, stressing community reconciliation and the burying of wartime enmities.

These examples of community care practised by Ann Jarvis (from the direct health care of young mothers, to more emotional attempts to repair post-war rancor) were exactly what her own daughter, Anna Marie, was thinking of when she eulogized Ann Jarvis in 1908. Anna Marie then campaigned for the establishment of a national Mother’s Day holiday. It led to a Mother’s Day proposal in Congress in 1908, which failed to pass. But all US states gradually adopted it by 1911. And eventually, in 1914, President Wilson established the second Sunday in May to be the annual observance of Mother’s Day in the United States.

It’s surprising how quickly Mother’s Day became commercialized, though. Mother’s Day cards, special Mother’s Day chocolate boxes, as well as Mother’s Day bouquets of flowers that packaged and sold by companies such as Hall Brothers (later Hallmark) became increasingly popular. Anna Jarvis fought against this commercialization, saying that it was not in the spirit of the Mother’s Day she had founded. By the early 1920s, Jarvis thought it had gone so far that it ruined the holiday. In fact, she started boycotts of Mother’s Day observances, and protested at the commercialization of Mother’s Day.

In reaction to these new traditions, Jarvis said,

“A printed card 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.”

And she kept up her opposition to the commercialization of Mother’s day well in to the 1940s. But none of her efforts to bring Mother’s Day back to her original conception of a day that truly reflected on the meaning of motherhood worked.

Anna Jarvis died in 1948, never having married or becoming a mother herself. And her original ideas and hopes for Mother’s Day could not overcome the forces of commercialism. And commemoration of the type of day-to-day hard work that her own mother, and lots of mothers, did for poor families in West Virginia during those late 19th century health reform movements in rural America, seemed to have been forgotten.

What’s worse, and more despairing, is that Julia Ward Howe’s “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World” never reached its goal either. After all, the most deadly conflicts in world history happened after Julia Ward Howe’s death in 1910. I’m talking, of course, of World War I and World War II. The combined death toll of those two wars was over 78 million people (18 million in World War I and 60 million in World War II). These include both the deaths of combatants and civilians (and many mothers among those civilians). And each of those war deaths, and the effect those deaths would have on mothers waiting at home, was exactly what Ann Jarvis, Julia Ward Howe, and Anna Jarvis fought to prevent.

Despite all the peace and disarmament movements led by women and mothers since Julia Ward Howe’s “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World” in 1870, the tendency of humans to go to war with each other seems to be tragically unremitting.

Maybe on this Mother’s Day we can cling to the hope that someday this will change. I suppose that, as long as there are mothers, there will always be hope.

An Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World

Julia Ward Howe

Again, in the sight of the Christian world, have the skill and power of two great nations exhausted themselves in mutual murder. Again have the sacred questions of international justice been committed to the fatal mediation of military weapons. In this day of progress, in this century of light, the ambition of rulers has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field. Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.

Arise, then, Christian women of this day ! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears ! Say firmly : We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women, without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient, and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.


Buzzkill Bookshelf

Katharine Lane Antolini, Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for Control of Mother’s Day (2014).

Explores the complicated history of movements to establish and control Mother’s Day, as well as the powerful conceptualizations of it as a holiday.