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Transcript: The Founding Mothers of Mother’s Day

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In the late 1860s, before there was an official Mother’s Day holiday in the U.S., a Methodist mom organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day,” at which mothers gathered with former Union and Confederate soldiers to promote reconciliation. We asked Harriet Olson, the current head of United Methodist Women, and Donna Miller, archivist at Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church, to tell us more about the women behind the holiday.

Script:

 (music, shots of cards, flowers)

Harriet Olson, Chief Executive, United Methodist Women: “When Ann Jarvis was working to establish Mother’s Day as a national event, and when her daughter picked up the mantle from her, they were not thinking about greeting cards and flowers.”

Instead the Methodist women who invented the idea in America wanted to honor mothers in a deeper way.

Harriet Olson, Chief Executive, United Methodist Women: “They were thinking about the work of women and the significant testimony that women could give about the need for peace.”

Ann Reeves Jarvis organized women’s clubs in the 1860s to serve suffering mothers and children.

Harriet Olson: “Women came together with their sisters in their locations to respond to the needs that they could see. For Ann, she was in a coal mining part of what is now West Virginia. And she could see the needs of women and children. And she could see the effect of the economy of her day on the people that she cared for most directly.”

Donna Miller, Archivist, Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church: “She started mothers clubs. And she talked to them about hydration for fevered babies, about sanitation and nutrition. And then the Civil War came along and they put a field hospital right outside Grafton.”

Ann recruited nurses for military hospitals, and after the war formed friendship clubs to promote reconciliation.

Harriet Olson: “Ann Jarvis was convinced that mothers, women, but especially mothers, had to work for peace because they could see the ravages of war in their husbands and in their sons, in a way that was so focused and so clear that their voices would be powerful. And that’s what’s at the genesis of the current Mother’s Day.”

Faith was always foremost. When she was older, Ann Jarvis and her daughter Anna became members of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church.  

Donna Miller: “Anna became a Sunday school teacher here at St. George’s. But she’s best known for the efforts she made to get Mother’s Day recognized as a national observance. She and John Wanamaker, who was a famous retailer here, are the ones that got Woodrow Wilson to sign the petition.”

Ann Jarvis died in 1905, before an official holiday was in place. But her daughter Anna (who was never a mother herself) stayed true to the purpose of the celebration. She envisioned Mother’s Day as a time to write a personal letter to your mother, a time to send her an inexpensive carnation (a flower in which the petals hold tight like a mother’s love) and a time to visit or attend church together.  She later became an outspoken critic when the special day turned too commercial.

Donna Miller: “She was really aggravated at people that turned that observation into a commercial outlet. So she had to say to Hallmark. She had a lot to say to the Salvation Army that started selling carnations. When she made carnations the symbol of Mother’s Day they sold for pennies. But the price soon went up to $1.50, $2.00 apiece because people found they could make money off of it. And her comments about Hallmark are just wonderful. She said, ‘How lazy can you be to buy somebody else’s sentiments for your mother? One day out of the year sit down and tell your mother what you really think of her.”  And she was just furious. I like that kind of spunk  She would have been a really interesting person to know. And I like telling the kids about her because the history of the church isn’t a history of ministers. It’s the people that make up the church. And I think they’re such a wonderful example of that. And besides making kids think about their mothers is always a good thing to do.”

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In May 1908, Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia.  There was also a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia on the same day.

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in the USA. Others like Julia Ward Howe and Juliet Calhoun Blakely also advocated for a Mother’s Day type recognition in the U.S. in the late 19th century also.

Mother’s Day is celebrated in a variety of countries.  In Thailand, Mother’s Day is celebrated in August on the birthday of the current queen, Sirikit.  In Ethiopia, families gather each fall to sing songs and eat a large feast as part of Antrosht, a multi-day celebration honoring motherhood.

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN. 
Media contact is Fran Walsh, 615-742-5458.
This video was first posted on March 15, 2015.

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