By Kirsten Salyer
This year, consumers are expected to spend $18.6 billion on Mother's Day, an increase of 8 percent from last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. The holiday is a major boon to confectioners, card makers, florists and the restaurant industry. And it's certainly popular among moms: The average consumer expects to spend more than $150 on them this year.
The woman who invented Mother's Day would be livid.
Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official national holiday in the early 1900s to commemorate her mother, who had organized "Mother's Friendship Days" to bring together moms who had been on opposing sides of the Civil War. She was following a tradition started by the poet Julia Ward Howe, who called for women to promote disarmament and peace in her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870.
Jarvis's petitioning paid off in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother's Day a national holiday to be celebrated the second Sunday of May. He called for a "public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country," according to the New York Times.
Four years later, Wilson's Mother's Day address had a more somber tone. He reminded the nation of the "patriotic sacrifices" from mothers who had sent sons to fight in World War I. More than 500,000 American soldiers stationed in France pinned white flowers to their uniforms to honor their mothers.
"Never again will the French believe that baseball is our greatest national institution," a dispatch in the New York Times said. "They think that mothers are."
By 1923, corporate America, especially candy and flower companies, had caught on to profit potential of the holiday. With demand for carnations 20 times higher on Mother's Day, florists raised their prices to $1 a flower in 1921.
Jarvis was outraged. She accused retailers of having "gouged the public" by co-opting Mother's Day symbols, the New York Times reported.
"You are using a beautiful idea as a means of profiteering," she told a confectioner’s convention on May 17, 1923. "As the founder of Mother's Day, I demand that it cease."
She was fighting a losing battle. Jarvis filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day event in 1923, and later was arrested for disorderly conduct when she interrupted a Philadelphia meeting of the American War Mothers and accused them of profiting from Mother’s Day carnation sales. She trademarked the phrase "Mother's Day" in the vain hope of preventing its commercialization, and protested when Postmaster General James Farley tried to use the words on the 1934 Whistler’s Mother stamp. (Instead the 3 cent stamp read “In memory and honor of the mothers of America.”)
Jarvis, whose slogan was “Don’t Kick Mother out of Mother’s Day," never had children herself. She died in poverty and was buried next to her mother.
(Kirsten Salyer is the social media editor of Bloomberg View.)
To read more from Echoes, Bloomberg View's economic history blog, click here.
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