How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.15.13 PM

Northern Pacific Railway Mother’s Day Greeting Card circa 1915

They say there are no words to describe a mother’s love for her child. But the case may be different when it comes to a child’s love for her mom. One woman went so far as to dedicate her entire life to honoring her mother’s legacy. She was the founder of Mother’s Day and her name was Anna Jarvis.

Anna Jarvis

Anna Jarvis was born in 1864 in Grafton, West Virginia. When her mother died in 1905, she made a solemn vow while standing over the gravesite. On that day, she pledged to devote her life to establishing a nationally recognized day to honor mothers for the positive contributions they made to society.


Anna Jarvis

Ann Reeves Jarvis and the Mother’s Day Work Clubs

Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had sacrificed a lot for her children. She had raised her family during the Civil War period and 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 sanitary conditions to combat such devastating illnesses, Jarvis created the Mother’s Day Work Clubs.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.22.55 PM

Ann Reeves Jarvis

The Mother’s Day Work Clubs were a series of coalitions of mothers located in small towns across West Virginia. The clubs raised money for medicines, placed women helpers with families whose mothers were bedridden and inspected food and bottled milk intended for children. The clubs provided much-needed strength and support to area communities that had been devastated by loss.

During the Civil War, Jarvis refused to take sides and urged her Mothers’ Day Work Club members to stay 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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.26.12 PM

U.S. Army Center of Military History

Following the war, the Clubs continued to be a unifying force in a divided nation. 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 her mother’s death, 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 later in the afternoon in Philadelphia, 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 judged to be important. 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.” 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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.19.41 PM

Proclamation 1268 establishing an official Mother’s Day

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.


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.



One hundred years later, Jarvis’ legacy lives on and carnations have become the official Mother’s Day flower.  In Jarvis’ day the carnations were white, but since then pink and red carnations have been added to the mix. 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.


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!


3 thoughts on “How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

Leave a Reply