For many, Mother’s Day is an occasion to celebrate the moms in their life with beautiful bouquets, heartfelt greeting cards, and maybe even an indulgent spa treatment or a mimosa-fueled brunch. And while these tokens and experiences are wonderful…they’re actually a far cry from what the OG Mother’s Day was all about. Won’t you join us for a little trip to the past to learn all about the social activist, community organizer, and trailblazing mama, Ann Reeves Jarvis—aka Mother Jarvis—who inspired the day?

The Mom Behind Mother’s Day

During the Civil War, former Sunday school teacher Mother Jarvis tapped her natural ability to bring people together by starting her own moms’ group. But unlike the moms’ groups of today, this one had a pretty heady intention: to save lives.

Dubbed Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, the goal of each meeting was to teach mothers basic health, hygiene, and child-rearing skills to help reduce infant mortality. In the 1800s, diseases and conditions like tuberculosis, diarrhea, and scarlet fever were rampant—and killed so many. Mother Jarvis herself lost eight children under age 7 and desperately wanted to chip away at this devastating crisis.

During the Mother’s Day Work Club meetings, medicine was distributed, and bottled milk and food were inspected for safety. (Contaminated milk often caused fatal infant diarrhea.) The mothers would also work together to hire help for moms who were too sick to care for their children. (Building that village!) Mother Jarvis, however, understood that it would take way more than a mother’s love and commitment to keep all children safe. And that’s why she worked tirelessly with her group to advocate for better public health, universal access to medicine, and improved food safety on both sides of the battlefield. (She even encouraged her Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to tend to wounded soldiers, no matter if they were fighting for the Confederate side or the Union side.) After the Civil War, Mother Jarvis took her knack for bringing moms together a step further and organized Mothers’ Friendship Day get-togethers between Union and Confederate moms in an effort to promote community and reconciliation.

Mother Jarvis always knew that moms had a special ability to champion for peace and push for change. Some even report that Mother Jarvis advocated for mothers to organize in the same way that miners and factory workers did—and that she wanted to erect a system of compensation for the work that mother’s do at home. Through it all, Mother Jarvis expressed hope that one day, a mother’s work would be formally recognized by everyone.

How Mother’s Day Started

After Mother Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter Anna Reeves Jarvis fought hard to honor her mother’s wish. She organized services at her mother’s church to recognize her mom’s indispensable work as a peacemaker and her commitment to social action. After that, Anna tirelessly petitioned politicians to make Mother’s Day a federal holiday.

Then, in 1915, on the second Sunday in May (the anniversary of Mother Jarvis’ death) Mother’s Day officially became a national holiday to honor mothers for being “the greatest source of our country’s strength and inspiration.” Anna was delighted! She requested that children all over the country visit or write letters home on Mother’s Day. She envisioned the day as a private acknowledgment of all that mom does for the family.

But soon, greeting card companies, florists, and more took over Anna’s personal vision…and she did not like it one bit. “To have Mother’s Day [be] the burdensome, wasteful, expensive gift day that Christmas and other special days have become, is not our pleasure,” she said in 1920.

Shortly after Mother's Day became a national holiday, Ann tried to bend the holiday back toward her original vision, endorsing boycotts against florists who raised flower prices every May, pressuring government officials to cancel public Mother’s Day events, and more. In fact, she spent the rest of her life trying to rescind the holiday.

Mother’s Day Today

Anna Reeves Jarvis was right: Mother’s Day as we know it is a gift-heavy occasion, with Americans spending roughly $245 on Mom. But we believe there’s a happy medium between staying true to Anna’s vision, her mom’s work, and what the holiday has become. So, in addition to showering moms with presents and flowers, let’s remember to also honor all the work they do by fighting to help support all mothers. Because moms deserve way more than a once-a-year bouquet.

Looking for ways to support moms? Read about some causes we ️:

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.