The first thing you should know about Mother’s Day is that its founder hated it.
Anna Jarvis of West Virginia founded Mother’s Day in 1908 as a holy day to honor her own mother’s work ethic and strength, as well as the often-thankless task of motherhood. She spent years lobbying various state and federal officials to proclaim the second Sunday of May (which marked the anniversary of her mother’s death) an official celebration of motherhood. Her vision, as told by Phil Edwards in Vox, was “one in which children gave personal messages of appreciation to mothers, possibly bought a white carnation for them, and credited their mothers with a nearly sacred domestic role.”
She got her wish—sort of. The US Congress approved Mother’s Day as an official holiday in 1914. And Jarvis spent the rest of her life rebelling against the commercialization of “her” holiday by floral, candy, and greeting-card companies. “I want to tell you that you are using a beautiful idea as a means of profiteering,” she said upon crashing the Associated Retail Confectioners convention in Philadelphia in 1923.
Jarvis would surely be unhappy to learn the amount of money that the 86% of Americans who celebrate Mother’s Day are expected to spend on the holiday this year. The National Retail Federation estimates that each American will spend an average $180 on the women in their lives in 2018, for a total yearly spending of $23.1 billion. Spending has generally been on the rise in recent years, as illustrated by the chart below (adjusted for inflation):
Not exactly the frugal, homey holiday Anna Jarvis had imagined.
Jarvis especially despised the idea that moms needed material affirmation on Mother’s Day. As Katharine Lane Antolini, the author of a book about Jarvis, told Vox, “She would have said, ‘No mother is poor. She has the love of her children.'” But in the eyes of the American retail industry, that love is even better if it comes with presents.
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.