Mother holding and kissing her young son in a grassy field with trees in the background

The Local Philadelphia Roots of Mother’s Day

This year, Mother’s Day falls on May 8th, but mothers, it seems, have always been celebrated. The ancient Greeks worshipped Rhea, the Goddess of Motherhood and fertility. She held the power of fertility and was said to be crafty in the art of raising children as did her Roman counterpart, Cybele. Both were celebrated with festivals and gifts. Throughout the years, humans have always found all kind of ways to celebrate their moms. You might even be able to imagine a young cave-child bringing a pretty stone back to the cave for mom. But did you know about its connections to the City of Brotherly Love? Keep reading to discover the Philadelphia roots of Mother’s Day.

painted portrait of Anna Jarvis

Mother’s Day in the USA – It’s Official

We’ve been celebrating Mother’s Day in the US for 108 years. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that added Mother’s Day to our national holiday calendar, but it wasn’t his idea. Anna Jarvis is the woman responsible for proposing and organizing the first Mother’s Day celebration. She was raised in Grafton, West Virginia where her father was a minister. When he died in 1902, she moved to Philadelphia with her mother. Her mother died three years later.

historical plaque in Philadelphia describing origins of Mother's Day

The Philly Connection

It was in response to her mother’s death and her own grieving that Anna came up with the idea of a national holiday. Anna asked merchant John Wanamaker for help. Wanamaker was a former Postmaster General and the owner of a successful department store. He also deeply loved his own mother and supported Anna’s idea. He in turn enlisted the financial help of food giant H. J. Heinz.

The third floor of Wanamaker’s store was called the Egyptian Hall and in 1908 it held the first organized Mother’s Day celebration, led by Anna Jarvis.  There were songs and speeches. People attending the event were given white carnations which had been Anna’s mother’s favorite. Anna thought carnations represented purity and longevity and were a fitting tribute. The same day, Anna had 100 white carnations delivered to mothers in a church back home in West Virginia. The Egyptian Hall at Wanamaker’s became the home of Mother’s Day activities for the next 11 years, led by Anna.

Anna worked 4 more years, petitioning, and rallying to bring her idea to attention nationally. Her dream came true with Woodrow Wilson’s signature in 1914.

Anna’s Mom

If you asked Anna why she wanted to honor her mother, she would tell you the story of Ann Reeves Jarvis who lived during the Civil War. This was a woman who bore 13 children but knew the tragedy of having only 4 survive to adulthood. She saw the ravages the Civil War brought into homes and families. She organized Mother’s Friendship Clubs to help women better understand how to improve living and health conditions in the home. She enlisted the help of her brother, James Reeves, who was a physician. These groups provided both information and support to countless women and families.

newspaper clipping with headline

An Unexpected Twist

Interestingly enough, once Ann had succeeded in her quest for a nationally recognized Mother’s Day, she became disillusioned. She had envisioned a quiet, personal holiday among families. She thought gifts should be homemade and simple and did not condone what she saw as the commercialization of the holiday by stores looking for profit. She spent much of the later part of her life fighting that commercialization and withdrawing her support of Mother’s Day. Anna died in 1948.

Mother’s Day – Worldwide

Americans don’t have the corner on Mother’s Day. It is in fact celebrated in over 44 countries. The calendar days differ, the gifts differ, and the customs may vary, but the heart of the holiday remains the same. In recent years Mother’s Day has expanded to include not just biological mother, but all the women who love, support, and nurture us. We all want to show the love and gratitude we feel in return.

Mother's Day gift basket from Stutz Candy

It’s Your Turn

You need to celebrate! There are so many ways to show your gratitude. Buy a gift, find a card, cook a meal, pick up the phone, weed the garden, or buy candy (chocolate almost always works). Just reach out to that woman you love and find a way to share Mother’s Day.