Anna Jarvis was born in Webster, Taylor County, West Virginia on May 1, 1864, the ninth of eleven children born to Ann Marie and Granville Jarvis. The home she was born in was built by her father in 1854. The family moved to Grafton, four miles south of Webster, when Anna was one and a half years old. It was here she spent her childhood, receiving her early education in public schools. In 1881, she enrolled at the Augusta Female Academy in Staunton, Virginia, now Mary Baldwin College. Upon finishing, Anna returned to Grafton where she taught school for seven years.
After the death of her father in 1902, Anna, along with her mother and sister Lillie, moved to Philadelphia to reside with her brother Claude. Anna’s mother died in May 1905. Anna was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support her mother received. She decided that all mothers needed a day in which they alone were honored, because too often women went unnoticed.
Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, had attempted to set up a version of Mother’s Day via Mother's Work Clubs during and after the Civil War as a time for remembrance of mothers' sacrifices to home and country. After the holiday failed to catch on, Anna recalled hearing her mother pray for a memorial day for mothers after a Sunday school lesson. She prayed, "I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother's day commemorating mothers for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it."
Anna began her campaign for the creation of a Mother's Day on the first anniversary of her mother's death. She secured a resolution favoring such a day from the church in Grafton, West Virginia, where her mother had been active. She then began a letter-writing and speaking campaign, gaining the support of the great Philadelphia merchant and philanthropist, John Wanamaker. Two years later, Anna held a memorial for her mother, honoring her and her good deeds. The next year she did the same thing, this time giving away her mother's favorite flower, carnations, to all in attendance.
Anna wanted carnations to be the symbol for Mother's Day. She hoped that every American would wear one on the second Sunday in May, a white one for a deceased mother, and a red or pink one for a mother still living. Anna was known for sending 500 or more carnations to the church in Grafton where her mother was so active. That same church, Andrew United Methodist Church, is now the location of a Mother's Day memorial statue and garden. Anna wanted everyone to attend church on Mother's Day, and afterward for children to spend time with their mothers over a family meal or in writing a note of appreciation to their mothers.
Anna was adamant people set aside one day a year to honor mothers around the country. By 1909, forty-five states were observing Mother's Day on the second Sunday in May. She campaigned on local and state levels to enact her idea into law. According to Katharine Lane Antolini, a historian at West Virginia Wesleyan College, "Anna chose the second Sunday in May because it was the closest day to her mother’s May 10th death and she also liked the idea of Sunday being a holy day.” Anna's local campaigning paid off and the first official proclamation came from the Governor of West Virginia in 1910.
In 1912, Anna quit her job at an advertising agency to devote more time to the Mother’s Day International Association, an organization she ran with the goal of making Mother's Day a national holiday. President Woodrow Wilson declared the day an official holiday, approving a resolution which was then adopted by both houses of Congress. Mother's Day was celebrated in every U.S. state in 1914.
Anna grew to despise the commercialism Mother's Day adopted, the day acting more as an advertiser to sell goods in reference to the holiday. She reportedly was so disgusted to hear that a department store was having a Mother’s Day sale that she threw her lunch on the floor. Anna then dedicated her life to reversing the work for the day she had campaigned Congress for six years to create.
“This is the wrong spirit,” Anna told the Miami Daily News in a heated interview in 1924. “Mother’s Day is a personal, family, and memorial day. It’s a celebration for sons and daughters; a thanks and offering for the blessings of good homes. I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit." She was against the inflation on the price of flowers, and she called greeting cards "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write."
Anna fought against the commercialization of Mother’s Day until the day she was admitted to a psychiatric ward. She had been arrested, thrown out of meetings, and became the enemy many of the charities who previously had supported her cause. She did not marry or have children but spent her later years caring for her invalid sister, Lillie. After her sister's death in 1944, friends placed Anna in the Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania due to her declining health. Ultimately Anna died of complications from arteriosclerosis and senility, alone and penniless at the age of 84 on November 24, 1948 in the sanitarium, where she lived out the last five years of her life. Ironically, and without Anna knowing it, her psychiatric bill had been contributed to by a group of florists.
Anna is interred beside her mother in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. On the day of her burial, she was remembered in Grafton when the bell on the Andrews Church was tolled eighty-four times in her honor.
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