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Fork in the Road: Mother’s Day—from a surprisingly sad start to celebration

How two determined women created a day for moms
Glenda Bartosh’s great-grandmother, Edith Burke, would have welcomed a day off from cooking and cleaning for her household with eight children, four of them with her here in Chatham, Ontario, in 1906—two years before Anna Jarvis organized a memorial for her mother, which started Mother’s Day.

A few days ago, I realized that I never knew what my mom traditionally did for her mom for Mother’s Day, nor what her mom did for her mom—my great-grandmother—in terms of cooking a special meal, like breakfast in bed, or maybe lunch, all nicely made and with a little bouquet, or at least a dandelion, on the table, and generally making her feel well-loved and appreciated for all the mothering she’s done all year. In short, treating her like the proverbial queen—for at least one day.

So I dialed up my mom, now 96 and still going strong, thinking I’d hear a tale or two that would be nearly a century old. Wasn’t I surprised to learn that none of them did much!

“Originally it was that we wore a flower—a carnation. White if your mother had passed away and red if she was still living. And that’s about all we did in the early times of Mother’s Day, as far back as I can remember,” she said.

Then mom went on to describe those carnations. They were artificial, but not plastic because basically there was no plastic back then in their lives. No, these artificial red and white carnations that my mom, and her mom, and even us girls in 1950s Edmonton wore to Sunday school on Mother’s Day, pinned to our “Sunday best,” of course, were made from a kind of foamy material. “Icebox flowers” is the term my mom used.

She recalled, too, how people from England would come into the stationary department at The Bay, where she worked, in downtown Edmonton—remember department stores?—wanting Mother’s Day cards to send home to the U.K. long before Mother’s Day was celebrated in Canada. So off I went to learn just where those artificial carnations we wore came from, and why Brits needed cards so much earlier than we did.

Sure, you can just look up the provenance of Mother’s Day on Wikipedia, but I prefer the research Olivia Waxman did for her 2017 article in Time Magazine.

Waxman largely refers to a book by Katharine Lane Antolini, assistant professor of history and gender studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Called Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Struggle for the Control of Mother’s Day, it describes the story of Anna Jarvis, a teacher, copywriter and business investor, who essentially started Mother’s Day. But it wasn’t an easy road for her to gain that recognition.

On May 10, 1908, three years after her mother’s death, Anna organized a memorial ceremony to honour her mother, and all mothers, at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia—now the International Mother’s Day Shrine. Although she didn’t attend the service herself, Anna sent 500 white carnations and a telegram to be read. So that’s where our “icebox” carnations came from!

Six years later, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the second Sunday in May a national holiday to express “our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” Canada followed suit the following year. But it was really Anna, and her mom, Anne, who’d started it all.

The elder Jarvis had hoped to see a day to celebrate all mothers (note the plural) and not our individual moms, with people doing community service to help out other mothers who were less fortunate. That impulse grew from her own experience.

Anne bore 13 children. Only four lived to be adults. She lived in Appalachia, where, during the 1800s and early 1900s, up to 30 per cent of infants died before their first birthday. In 1858, Anne started working with her brother, Dr. James Reeves, to organize events called Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, where doctors could teach mothers the latest in hygiene and medicine to keep their kids healthy and stop babies from dying prematurely.

After her mother had died and an official day for mothers had never caught on, Anna kicked things off with that 1908 memorial ceremony and the 500 carnations. But she always acknowledged that it was President Wilson’s declaration of a national holiday that really got people’s attention, as holidays do. (Declare Earth Day a holiday and let’s see how people get involved!)

Once the momentum got rolling, lots jumped on the Mother’s Day bandwagon, for better or worse. In the 1920s, Hallmark and other card companies started selling those Mother’s Day cards everyone was looking for in The Bay. And even more commercialization ensued—something Anna Jarvis fought against as people expressed it by buying things and not necessarily helping out moms who needed it most.

As for the momentum spreading geographically, Mother’s Day in one form or another is celebrated around the world, and on dates throughout the year. In many places, like Greece and Panama, it’s tied to existing secular or religious celebrations, some of them ancient. In England and throughout the U.K., Mother’s Day is celebrated on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, which usually falls in March. Ergo my mom trying to console all those British shoppers when they couldn’t find cards to send.

Also note that the correct spelling, which we still use today, is the one Anna Jarvis trademarked herself: Mother’s Day, the singular possessive, demarking our attention to our individual moms, versus the plural possessive spelling her mom, Anne, used for her Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, denoting the collective of mothers, the common good.

As for icebox flowers, the only reference I could find is an ad for Bellefairs Department Store from the Ottawa Citizen in 1948, the same year Anna Jarvis died, “broke, blind, and in a sanitarium,” partly due to fighting for full credit for starting Mother’s Day, according to Waxman’s Time article.

The Bellefairs’ ad touts “icebox flowers” as a Valentine’s gift: “They look and feel like real flowers … with matching fragrances. Each attractively boxed in an attractive celluloid gift container…”  Lamb, BTW, was selling for 23 cents a pound at the time, according to an adjoining ad. Now that’s something worth celebrating.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who wishes moms and their families everywhere a Happy Mother’s Day, even if all you do is drag something out of the icebox.

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