The Surprising True Story Of The Women Behind Mother’s Day

The Surprising True Story Of The Women Behind Mother’s Day

More than a century ago, deep in the heart of Appalachia, one loving daughter championed the effort to fulfill the dream of her beloved mother.
Christine Weerts
By

Any mother who has had to bury her child — one of the most devastating and enduring tragedies of motherhood — can take heart on Mother’s Day. You are not alone. The mother who was the very inspiration for the holiday, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, lost seven of her 11 children during the mid-1800s in rural Virginia.

The dedication to honoring and supporting mothers displayed by Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis inspired her daughter Anna Jarvis, who never married or had children, to lobby for a holiday to honor “the best mother who ever lived — your mother.” After a few years of local celebrations, Mother’s Day became a national holiday on May 9, 1914, following the proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson, who declared the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

Ann Marie Reeves was born on Sep. 30, 1832, in Culpepper, Virginia to a Methodist preacher and his wife. At the age of 17, she married Granville E. Jarvis, son of a Baptist minister, and the couple moved to Taylor County (now West Virginia) where Granville began his career as a merchant.

Seven children born to the young couple did not live past the age of six, dying of infectious diseases including measles, typhoid and scarlet fever, and diptheria — ailments common in Appalachian communities at that time. Indeed, Ann Marie’s story was not uncommon. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, an estimated 15 to 30 percent of infants died before their first birthday in Appalachia, largely due to epidemics spread by poor sanitary conditions.

At the age of 26, while pregnant with her sixth child, Ann Marie decided to take action. She called on mothers of local communities to form Mother’s Day Work Clubs in their churches to improve the lives of babies.

Enlisting the help of her brother, Dr. James Reeves, who was treating victims of typhoid fever, they organized events where doctors led discussions with local mothers on the hygiene practices that could keep their children healthy. Before 1880, there was no organized group of physicians for children in the United States and no specific subspecialty fields within health care for children. As noted in West Virginia archives:

The physicians charted the tasks for the clubs to undertake. Members were assigned certain duties … and their work was inspected by the doctors and nurses from surrounding communities. The clubs were honored for successfully carrying out their plans and solving a local community problem.

The clubs also provided medicine for the poor, hired women to work for families in which the mothers were ill, and inspected bottled milk. Nonbreast-fed infants experienced particularly high mortality rates because much of the cow milk supply was “swill milk,” which came from cows fed only distiller’s mash and housed in filthy conditions, without fresh air, exercise, or hay, many also infected by bovine tuberculosis (pasteurization of milk by heating was not introduced until 1890).

When the Civil War began, Ann Marie found her community divided by Northern and Southern loyalties in a railroad town strategic to both sides. She called on her clubs not to choose sides, but to remain neutral and serve all in need. The clubs then fed and clothed soldiers from both sides who were stationed in the area.

The records of Ann Marie Jarvis’s life continue:

When an epidemic of typhoid fever and measles broke out among the military personnel, Mrs. Jarvis and her Mothers Day Work Clubs were called upon for help. Her answer was ‘You shall have it. … No mistreatment of any of our members. We are composed of both the Blue and the Gray.’ The clubs subsequently received the highest commendations from officers and soldiers for the magnificent services rendered the sick soldiers.”

After the war ended, Ann Marie called for the end of hostilities in an area so contentious that the state split in 1863, forming West Virginia. They planned a “Mothers Friendship Day” bringing together the blue and the gray to heal animosities.

As the daughter of a preacher, Ann Marie was a faithful church-going woman who helped raise funds to build Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in 1873 (now the International Mother’s Day Shrine), taught Sunday School for 25 years, and led classes on “mothers of the Bible.” Her prayer at the end of one of the classes called for recognition of mothers everywhere.

“I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life,” Ann Marie prayed.

The International Mother’s Day Shrine.

Anna Marie Jarvis, the ninth of eleven children (her only surviving sister was born blind), was 12 years old when she heard her mother’s prayer, recalling, “This heart-rending, agonizing prayer burned its way into my mind and heart so deeply, and it never ceased to burn. I could never forget it.” When her mother died May 9, 1905, she vowed to fulfill that dream.

Anna organized the first Mother’s Day celebration at her home congregation, Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, on May 10, 1908. Anna presented white carnations — her mother’s favorite flower — to each son and daughter attending and two to each mother.

Anna also campaigned for a national Mother’s Day holiday, writing hundreds of letters to legislators, executives, and businessmen. A popular speaker like her mother before her, Anna took every opportunity to promote her vision.

Today Mother’s Day is celebrated around the world on different dates. In the United States, more than 133 million Mother’s Day cards are exchanged each year and the day generates more than $20 billion in consumer spending, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation. Anna Jarvis was so appalled by the commercialization of the holiday that she tried desperately to get it rescinded, spending the rest of her life protesting it.

But her initial proclamation for the celebration struck a chord that has endured for 117 years. In one of the earliest celebrations, Anna Jarvis explained the meaning of the holiday quite poignantly:

This day is intended that we may make new resolutions for a more active thought to our dear mothers. By words, gifts, acts of affection, and in every way possible, give her pleasure, and make her heart glad every day, and constantly keep in memory Mothers Day; when you made this resolution, lest you forget and neglect your dear mother, if absent from home write her often, tell her of a few of her noble good qualities and how you love her. God bless our faithful good mothers.

Christine Weerts, author of "Heroes of Faith: Rosa J. Young," is a researcher with the Alabama Black Lutheran Heritage Association. She won a commendation from the Concordia Historical Institute in 2020 for her historical writing on race. A freelance writer, she has degrees in music (BA) and religion (MA).

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