The Forgotten Failed Branding of Mother's Day

Chris Dickman
Founding Editor, Graphics.com

Not the kind of motherhood
Anna Jarvis had in mind.
Woman of Willendorf,
fertility figure, Paleolithic
Period. Image credit:
Don Hitchcock

In 1948 Anna Jarvis died in a Pennsylvania mental institution, broke, blind and almost deaf. She had devoted her life to defending a particular view of motherhood, incarnated in her popularization of an annual Mother's Day. It turned out to be a losing battle.

Her mother, Ann Jarvis, had not only born eleven children but during the mid-nineteenth century had been very active in the community, creating Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in a number of towns to raise health and sanitary standards. Ann also organized the nursing of soldiers on both sides of the conflict during the Civil War and subsequently gave lectures with such catchy titles as "The Great Value of Hygiene for Women and Children" and "Literature as a Source of Culture and Refinement." Underlying all this would seem to have been a sincere commitment to acknowledge and help mothers.

19th century ephemera.
Also not the kind
of motherhood Anna
Jarvis had in mind.

It was an unusual fusion of roles for the era and one that daughter Anna placed at the center of her novel conception of a Mother's Day. In her view this was to be a simple, elegant acknowledgement of the importance of the role of mothers both within and without the home, expressed in such acts as the gift of a single white carnation or a hand-written letter. Despite the significant number of her siblings, there was nothing within this conception of Mother's Day that echoed ancient and still-observed practices celebrating female fecundity. And while the family was a religious one, also absent was the fascination with the Virgin Mary that became so prominent amongst American Protestants of the era, who viewed her as "pure and powerful, compassionate and transcendent, maternal and yet remote" (see The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture).

Flower bouquets and chocolates are
still top Mother's Day gifts. Anna
would not have approved.

With a remarkable sense of how to launch and maintain a brand, Anna began by trademarking the term "Mother's Day" and setting up the Mother's Day International Association to first establish and then grow the celebration under her control. After much lobbying, in 1914 she was successful in getting Mother's Day accepted as a US national holiday honoring mothers, with countries worldwide soon following. But with the growing popularity of such an observance came commercial interests only too happy to profit from it. Single carnations were soon superceded with elaborate floral gifts and hand-written notes were replaced with often cloyingly sentimental cards. These were in turn amplified by gifts of chocolates, candies and all sorts of unrelated gewgaws.

Alas, all this apparently drove Anna into a frenzy and she spent the subsequent years battling those dimming her original vision by protesting in stores, launching boycotts against commercial interests viewed as exploitative, threatening lawsuits and in 1935 even accusing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of somehow taking advantage of the holiday for her own nefarious ends. Of course, all this turned out badly for Anna, who saw her original conception of the Mother's Day brand slip from her control and mutate into something quite different.

But more than 100 years after the official declaration of Mother's Day, where are we now? Americans are expected to spend upwards of $2 billion on Mother's Day flower arrangements in 2017, with sales thus surpassing Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Easter. Cards aren't as popular as they once were but sales should still reach over half a billion. Total anticipated spending? A cool $21 billion.

Anna would no doubt have found that irksome. And she wouldn't have been thrilled to see her original emphasis on acknowledging one's own mother expanding to include wives, daughters, siblings, girlfriends and just about anybody female. But on the plus side is that the often overly-sentimental aspect of this day has slowly diminished in recent years, to be gradually replaced by a less one-dimensional image of mothers and motherhood. This is simply a reflection of the long-overdue acknowledgment of women's role in the home, the workplace and society at large. From that perspective, the modern-day woman that's on the receiving end of all these cards and flowers is starting to look more like Anna's own mother from a hundred years ago, who managed to balance the roles of mother and activist.

Top image credit: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit