The modern holiday was first celebrated in 1907, when Anna Jarvis held the first Mother’s Day service of worship at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Andrew’s Methodist Church now holds the International Mother’s Day Shrine.
Her campaign to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday in the United States began in 1905, the year her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Ann Jarvis had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War, and created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues.
She and another peace activist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe had been urging for the creation of a “Mother’s Day For Peace” where mothers would ask that their husbands and sons were no longer killed in wars. 40 years before it became an official holiday, Ward Howe had made her Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870, which called upon mothers of all nationalities to band together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
Anna Jarvis wanted to honor this and to set aside a day to honor all mothers because she believed a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”
In 1908, the US Congress rejected a proposal to make Mother’s Day an official holiday, joking that they would also have to proclaim a “Mother-in-law’s Day.” However, owing to the efforts of Anna Jarvis, by 1911 all US states observed the holiday, with some of them officially recognizing Mother’s Day as a local holiday (the first being West Virginia, Jarvis’ home state, in 1910). In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating Mother’s Day, held on the second Sunday in May, as a national holiday to honor mothers.
Although Jarvis, who started Mother’s Day as a liturgical service, was successful in founding the celebration, she became resentful of the commercialization of the holiday, and it became associated with the phrase “Hallmark holiday.” By the early 1920’s, Hallmark Cards and other companies had started selling Mother’s Day cards.
Jarvis believed that the companies had misinterpreted and exploited the idea of Mother’s Day and that the emphasis of the holiday was on sentiment, not profit. As a result, she organized boycotts of Mother’s Day, and threatened to issue lawsuits against the companies involved. Jarvis argued that people should appreciate and honor their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards.
Jarvis protested at a candy makers’ convention in Philadelphia in 1923, and at a meeting of American War Mothers in 1925. By this time, carnations had become associated with Mother’s Day, and the selling of carnations by the American War Mothers to raise money angered Jarvis, who was arrested for disturbing the peace.
In Britain, Constance Adelaide Smith was inspired to advocate for Mothering Sunday, an already-existing Christian ecclesiastical celebration in which the faithful visit the church in which they received the sacrament of baptism, as an equivalent celebration.
She referred to medieval traditions of celebrating Mother Church, “mothers of earthly homes,” Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mother Nature. Her efforts were successful in the British Isles and other parts of the English-speaking world.