500 White Carnations, Anna Jarvis and the Founding of Mother’s Day*

This is one of my favorite all-time stories. And even better, it’s true. It’s the tale of a mother and daughter, 500 white carnations and the founding of Mother’s Day.

It all began in West Virginia

The story begins in 1905, when Anna Jarvis found herself standing over the grave of her mother. She and her mother had shared a deep bond throughout Anna’s lifetime. Consumed by grief, Anna made a solemn vow. She would dedicate her life to establishing a nationally-recognized day to honor her mother and all mothers for the positive contributions they made to society.

Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had sacrificed a lot for her children. Having raised her family during the Civil War period, she had suffered frequent hardship and loss. Of the 11 children she gave birth to, only four survived. The others died from diseases common at the time, including measles, typhoid fever and diphtheria.

In the late 1850’s, in the hopes of improving conditions to combat such devastating illness, Jarvis came up with an idea. She began organizing coalitions of mothers from small towns located across West Virginia. The women dedicated their time to raising money for medicines, inspecting food and milk intended for children and providing helpers to families whose mothers were bedridden by illness. The coalitions became known as the Mother’s Day Work Clubs.

Ann Reeves Jarvis

The mothers cared for people at all levels of society. They drew no lines where it came to political affiliations. This was particularly remarkable during the Civil War period when Mothers’ Day Work Club members insisted on remaining neutral. In their supplemental role as volunteer nurses, the Club’s mothers cared for wounded soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies, providing food and clothing to the many men who were stationed in the area.

Mother’s Day Work Club members took care of all soldiers

And, the clubs continued to be a unifying force in a divided nation after the end of the Civil War. In 1868, Jarvis organized Mothers’ Friendship Day, which was centered around picnics and other pacifist activities. The events brought together mothers of former foes and encouraged reconciliation among area families.

Anna Jarvis and the white carnation

Shortly after Jarvis’ death, her daughter Anna organized a memorial to honor her. She held it at her mother’s church, St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. During the service, she passed out 500 white carnations (her mother’s favorite flower) to all the mothers in attendance. Similar events took place all over Philadelphia that afternoon, where Anna lived at the time.

With this unofficial inauguration of the Mothers’ Day movement, Anna began an intense letter writing campaign, reaching out to every state governor and national or local figure she figured could help her. By 1909, largely as a result of her campaign, 46 states and many foreign countries, including Canada and Mexico, had begun holding Mother’s Day celebrations. In 1912, Anna formed the Mother’s Day International Association to encourage further international recognition of the day.

Finally in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made things official. He signed Proclamation 1268, which created a national Mother’s Day as A public expression of love and reverence for the mothers of our country.

Letter signed by President Woodrow Wilson establishing Mother’s Day

The second Sunday in May was set aside as the official day of celebration and the wearing of a white carnation, symbol of love and good luck, became a tradition.

The controversy over printed cards

Anna Jarvis’ original vision was for Mother’s Day to be a personal celebration between mothers and their families (*this is why Mother’s takes the singular possessive and not the plural). She imagined it as a time when millions would visit their mothers and pen personal, hand written notes expressing their love and affection.

Vintage Mother’s Day card

With the official recognition of the holiday, though, florists, card companies and other merchants began jumping on the bandwagon. Jarvis became more and more incensed as she watched Mother’s Day drift further and further away from her original idea. And, nothing upset her more than the growth in popularity of the printed Mother’s Day card. She wrote,

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. 

By 1920, Jarvis had become so upset over the commercialization of Mother’s Day that she launched a campaign to abolish the holiday. Declaring Mother’s Day a failure, she organized boycotts and threatened lawsuits to stop what she saw as an attempt by others to profit off of the day.

In 1923, she filed suit against the then Governor of New York, Al Smith, over a Mother’s Day celebration. When the court rejected her plea, she formed a protest and was arrested for disturbing the peace. She devoted the remainder of her life to fighting against the very day she had established.

Jarvis died, childless, in 1948 at the age of 84. She was buried next to her mother in Philadelphia.

The role of carnations

One hundred years later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on in our annual Mother’s Day holiday where carnations have become the official flower.  In Jarvis’ day the carnations were white, but since then pink and red carnations have become equally popular. According to FTD’s Mother’s Day Flower Guide, pink carnations represent love and gratitude while red carnations signify admiration. Nowadays, white carnations are reserved for honoring a mother who is no longer living.

Red carnations signify admiration

Despite Jarvis’ later efforts, every U.S. president since 1914 has issued an official Presidential Mother’s Day Proclamation recognizing and honoring America’s mothers. And today, the custom is celebrated all over the world (albeit on different days.)

On a personal note, I like receiving printed cards and flowers on Mother’s Day, but have to agree with Jarvis that nothing beats a hand-written note from your child. I’m lucky enough to receive such letters each and every year.

Wishing all of you a very happy Mother’s Day!


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