The Surprising History of Mother’s Day


What gifts are given or received on Mother’s Day? Jewelry? Chocolate? A lavish meal at a restaurant? Definitely flowers. In fact, according to, “In 2023, consumers spent $3.2 billion on flowers on Mother’s Day in the United States – a 10.3% annual increase and the highest-ever amount recorded.” Add the money spent for moms’ extra gifts and we end up with a $35.7 billion holiday, according to the same source.

The history of how Mother’s Day began, however, is quite different than how we celebrate moms today. To understand its origins, we have to go back in time to the American Civil War. One of countless women who served in some capacity during the war was Julia Ward Howe (1814-1910). Howe worked for the US Sanitary Commission which promoted clean and hygienic conditions for soldiers and hospitals. Also a poet and author, Howe was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. Her poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is considered the Union’s Civil War anthem. 

Although the Civil War ended in 1865, it wasn’t until 1870 that Howe became an anti-war activist and advocate for peace. During this time, Howe learned that Europe recently engaged in the Franco-Prussian war. She could hardly believe that another war had started after her generation had suffered through the Civil War. She believed the conflict could have been resolved without unnecessary bloodshed.

Howe believed that women and mothers needed to take the lead in preventing war. Her reasoning was that mothers’ love for their sons was strong enough to save them from war. Furthermore, mothers had invested too much in teaching sons “charity, mercy, and patience” to go off to war.

Turning her frustration into activism, Howe issued her Mother’s Day Proclamation, calling. Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation called upon mothers all around the world to band together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” She invited women to meet and “solemnly take counsel with others as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”

Howe first suggested a “Mother’s Day for Peace’’ in 1872. She worked for several years to gain recognition of a June 2nd holiday. Howe called for women to gather once a year in parlors, churches, or social halls to promote peace. She also regularly organized meetings in Boston for women to rally, as men at the time showed little interest in her ideas. 

Howe’s version of Mother’s Day never took hold. But Howe went on to head the American branch of the Women’s International Peace Association, which observed a day dedicated to peace.

Howe’s contemporary counterpart and social activist, Ann Jarvis, or “Mother Jarvis” also promoted peace in the aftermath of the Civil War. However, her peace initiatives differed from Howe’s in light of  the senseless, bitter rifts between her Confederate and Union neighbors in Virginia. 

Before the war, Mother Jarvis faced many tragedies and, as a result, dedicated herself to helping worked tirelessly to help other mothers. Sadly, she sadly lost seven of her children to diseases such as measles, typhoid fever, and diphtheria. During the mid-1800s these diseases ran rampant in Appalachian communities like the one Jarvis and her family lived. These losses inspired Jarvis to help fight childhood diseases and unsanitary conditions.

In 1858, while pregnant with her sixth child, Jarvis began Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to educate families and help them improve their health and sanitation. The clubs also raised money to buy medicine and hire women to help in households where the mother suffered from tuberculosis or other health problems.

The Civil War sharply divided the state of Virginia between north and south; finally in 1863 the western part of the state seceded to form the new state of West Virginia which was loyal to the Union. Residing now in West Virginia, Jarvis resolved to remain neutral. Her Mothers’ Day Work Clubs began providing aid to soldiers on both sides, and she continued to promote peace between the Confederacy and the Union, even after the war ended. In 1868, Jarvis and her club members staged  a “Mothers Friendship Day” for soldiers and their families from both sides to help the healing process. There she also used her platform to share messages of unity and reconciliation. The event ended with all attendees, north and south, singing “Auld Lang Syne” together, bringing many to tears.

One of Mother Jarvis’ four surviving children watched as her mother served other mothers in the community and promoted peace. That child’s name was also Anna Jarvis and she is credited with starting a Mother’s Day tradition that is closer to how we now celebrate the holiday. 

Anna got the idea of a day to honor mothers as a child when she overheard her mother saying a prayer in hopes of someone establishing such a day:

“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mothers day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”— Ann Reeves Jarvis

After her mother died, Anna hoped to set aside one day a year to honor the sacrifices mothers made for their children. In honor of her own mother, Anna held a private memorial service at her mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia, on the date of her passing, May 12, 1907. The next year, Anna organized the first official observance of Mother’s Day near the anniversary of her mother’s death. Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia held the first public Mother’s Day service on the morning of May 10, 1908. Residing in Philadelphia, Anna did not attend this service but sent 500 white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower, for those in attendance. Anna organized another service that afternoon in Philadelphia at the Wanamaker Store Auditorium where. 15,000 people are said to have attended. 

Although Anna remained unmarried and childless her whole life, the success of her first Mother’s Day inspired her to get the holiday added to the national calendar. She wrote letters to newspapers and politicians, urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood. Within five years virtually every state was observing Mother’s Day, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson officially made the second Sunday in May a national holiday. 

Anna Jarvis’ conception of Mother’s Day was a personal one. She encouraged wearing her mother’s beloved white carnation as  a symbol of the hard work all mothers put forth. It was intended to be a simple, inexpensive symbol of love and respect for mothers. The custom has since changed to wearing a red or pink carnation to represent a living mother, while a white carnation represents a mother who has passed. The holiday evolved in other ways too. Anna envisioned Mother’s Day simply as a time to visit one’s mother, write letters, or attend church services. It wasn’t long before florists, card companies and other merchants capitalized on gift-giving for the holiday.

The capitalization of Mother’s Day did not sit well with Anna, nor was it what she intended for the holiday. She urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards and candies, and even lobbied for the government to remove Mother’s Day from the calendar. 

As a mother myself, I’m always happy to receive flowers or other Mother’s Day gifts. But I’m even  happier to receive a handwritten certificate where my child promises to complete chores that mom usually does. Perhaps a new Mother’s Day tradition could include volunteer work in honor of the Mother’s Day founders who gave so much of themselves to promote peace and help their communities. A bouquet of carnations and a fancy Mother’s Day brunch would be nice, too!

Amy McGarry grew up in Spokane Valley, Washington. After a 20 year hiatus, she moved back to Spokane Valley where she lives with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is the author of “I am Farang: Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand” available on, Auntie’s Bookstore, and Barnes and Noble.

By Amy McGarry