Mother’s Day: Wartime Secrets and Women Heroes

Greetings Everyday Spy,

Mother’s Day is the second most popular holiday in the world.

  • 86% of Americans spend more than $180 each on Mother’s Day gifts.
  • More than 141 million Mother’s Day greeting cards are stamped and sent annually.
  • Retail sales for Mother’s Day increase by an average $1 billion per year.

Mother’s Day is a big deal.

But behind the price tags, gift-wrap and brunch menus, Mother’s Day has a dark history that retailers don’t like to talk about…

A history of courageous women, lost lives, and the blinding power of money.

I have three special mothers in my life: my mother, my mother’s mother, and my wife.

  • My mother chose to give me life even when my father left.
  • My mother’s mother gave me love and guidance while my mother built a life for us.
  • And my wife gave me two wonderful children that teach me how deep and rich a child’s love can be.

To honor these special ladies and all mothers, I share the sad but true story of the Mother’s Day that they deserve.

Mother’s Day was born from loss.

In the late 1850’s, sickness, disease and poor hygiene were killing children across America (only 31 states, at the time). 

In West Virginia, a vocal female activist named Ann Reeves Jarvis started organizing social clubs for mothers concerned with the health and well-being of their families. These clubs – called Mothers’ Day Work Clubs – taught women practical skills from daily hygiene to household sanitation.

Mothers’ Day… a day for all mothers.

Basic knowledge about clean drinking water, food-borne illness, and the spread of germs was not well known at the time. Ann, a mother of 6 children by 1856, had lost 4 of them to preventable disease by 1858. Armed with her brother’s medical knowledge and a passion to protect children’s health, she grew a few local work clubs into community cornerstones by 1860.

As Ann Jarvis’s Mothers’ Day Work Clubs started to take off, America fell into a bloody civil war.

Rather than choose one side or the other, Jarvis led her fellow mothers to take a neutral stance in the conflict and dedicate themselves to serving all soldiers in need. Being located in the middle of the North/South divide, these courageous West Virginian ladies clothed, cared for, and trained both Confederate and Union soldiers in proper field sanitation.

5 years and 620,000 deaths later, the US Civil War ended and families started the road to reconciliation.

Ann Reeves Jarvis, a hero in her community and to hundreds of misplaced soldiers, had lost four more children to conflict and disease. With only 4 of her 12 children surviving to adulthood, Jarvis’s commitment to motherhood and healthy families had made her a legend throughout the re-united states.

But modern-day Mother’s Day wasn’t the work of Ann Jarvis – rather, it was the passion project of her daughter Anna Maria Jarvis.

By the time her mother died in 1905, Anna had ferociously taken up her mother’s cause. As the Mothers’ Day movement spread, Anna began lobbying media and politicians to create a holiday to honor the sacrifices mothers make for their children.

Mother’s Day… a day for one mother.

With no children of her own and no significant wealth, Anna Jarvis was an unlikely leader for a national movement. So to gain momentum, Anna partnered with an enterprising Philadelphia Department store owner named John Wanamaker to launch the first-ever Mother’s Day Celebrations. One in Grafton, WV and another in Philadelphia, PA – both on May 10th, 1908.

Anna wanted Mother’s Day to be a reverent day, celebrated with only a simple white carnation and honest words of thanks to mom.

But after Wanamaker’s Philadelphia store saw thousands of customers visit the store to buy gifts for mom, he had a different idea. 

One of the earliest pioneers for modern-day marketing and advertising, Wanamaker owned retail stores in Philadelphia and New York. He had wealth and prestige enough to win him a cabinet position in US President Benjamin Harrison’s administration. 

John Wanamaker became the primary financial backer for Anna Jarvis’s campaign to make Mother’s Day an official national holiday.

And by 1912, their work had led states, cities, civic clubs and churches nationwide to adopt annual Mother’s Day celebrations. And running alongside this grassroots growth was Anna Jarvis’s official Mother’s Day International Association.

In 1914, to Anna’s joy and a nation’s excitement, President Woodrow Wilson officially designated the second of Sunday of May as an official national holiday – Mother’s Day.

But unfortunately, this is not the end of the story.

Within just a few years, the profitability of Mother’s Day marketing had taken over Anna Jarvis’s original vision for a reserved, personal family holiday. Florists, confectioneries, card makers and retail storefronts had enjoyed the same benefits that John Wanamaker discovered that fateful Sunday in 1908.

By 1920, money and marketing had taken over Mother’s Day and changed the vision set by two generations of Jarvis women.

Instead of a symbolic day for children to reflect on the selfless sacrifice of mothers, it became a promotional event for restaurants and retailers. 

Instead of a day for communities to honor the women who make new life happen, the holiday became focused on the customers who make business happen.

Instead of a time to celebrate the incredible strength and courage of mothers, it became a time to give mom something that looks pretty or tastes sweet and say ‘I love you’ instead of ‘thank you.’ 

Anna Jarvis went to war to protect Mother’s Day – bankrupting herself in legal fees fighting the same retailers that ultimately won Presidential support for her national holiday.

And when her fight to correct her own mistake broke her mental capacity, she ended up in an asylum in West Chester, PA. Where all her medical bills were paid for by the floral and retail shops that wanted to ensure she had proper treatment.

Today is a day to celebrate mothers, motherhood, and the women who risked everything to give us life.

The history is just one part of a larger story – a story that you and I write in our everyday lives.

Whether your mother is with you or away from you, take a moment to reflect on what she gave up for you – her comfort, her time, her sleep, her body. 

And then realize that, to her, you were worth every sacrifice.

Thank you, mom.

Godspeed, mothers everywhere – you are all true heroes.

Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of www.EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.

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