In this column, I’ve written about the origins of Mother’s Day. But it occurred to me that I’ve never explored the history of Father’s Day. I figured Mother’s Day came first, and Father’s Day was the guys playing catch up. It turns out I was right.
Mother’s Day was the lifelong obsession of Anna Jarvis, whose own mother, Ann Maria Jarvis, a devout Christian, humanitarian and loving mom to a brood of 11 kids, did volunteer and charity work during the Civil War, helping widows and mothers with absentee husbands. Ann Maria Jarvis was pained to see how little these strong, overburdened women were appreciated. One day in Sunday school, when Anna was 12 years old, her mother concluded a lesson on “Mothers of the Bible” with a prayer.
“I hope that someone, sometime will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.”
This simple statement made such an impression on Anna that when her mother died in 1905, she made her a promise at the graveside service: “By the grace of God, you shall have that Mother’s Day.”
From that moment on, that vow consumed Anna. She went around the country castigating children young and old for not appreciating their mothers. She wrote hundreds of letters to politicians and other influential people, hitting the bull’s eye with department store mogul and philanthropist John Wanamaker of Philadelphia, who was so impressed with her cause that in 1908, Philadelphia became the first city to celebrate Mother’s Day. It took another six years for Anna to achieve her ultimate goal. In 1914, a new friend, President Woodrow Wilson, made Mother’s Day official, proclaiming it a national holiday to be held annually on the second Sunday of May.
But what about the dads? In 1909, a Spokane, Wash. woman named Sonora Smart Dodd started a campaign to officially commemorate the nation’s fathers, in honor of her dad, William Jackson Smart, a twice-widowed Civil War vet and father of 14 children. Eight of those children were grown when Smart’s second wife died, leaving him to raise the 16-year-old Sonora and her five siblings.
Sonora never forgot the heroic job William did. “He was both father and mother to all of us,” she fervently recalled. So, at a Mother’s Day service in 1909 at her church in Spokane, Wash., Sonora decided it was high time to create a companion day for fathers.
Like Anna Jarvis, Mrs. Dodd was dogged in her quest. She took her cause everywhere, prodding churches, businesses and government officials to support it. Her perseverance bore fruit, and on June 19, 1910, Washington State declared the first statewide Father’s Day.
But that was only the beginning. Like Jarvis, who wouldn’t quit until Mother’s Day was declared a national holiday, Dodd was determined to do the same for Father’s Day. She got a big boost when the famed politician and orator William Jennings Bryan sent her a congratulatory letter. Suddenly the media was on the story, and in 1916, President Wilson, Anna Jarvis’s old pal, went to Spokane to celebrate Father’s Day.
But while Jarvis only had to wait six years, from 1908 until 1914, for Mother’s Day to go from a statewide to a national holiday, it was 62 years before Sonora Dodd could declare victory. Like the male and female of the species, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day had their own distinct traits. While Mother’s Day was easy to commercialize, instantly gaining the backing of the florist, greeting card and candy industries, Father’s Day was a rugged contrast. According to www.history.com, “Many men continued to disdain the day. As one historian writes, they ‘scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products–often paid for by the father himself.’”
Ironically, the push to nationalize Father’s Day gained momentum during the Great Depression, when money was not exactly plentiful. Retailers desperate for business saw potential in promoting Father’s Day as a “second Christmas” for men. Pooh to flowers and candy! Why not give dad neckties, pipes, tobacco, sporting goods and other macho gifts? When WWII rolled around, Father’s Day got an even bigger boost, as it now was the perfect way to honor dads in uniform and support the war effort.
Nonetheless, the decades went by without a national Father’s Day. Sonora Dodd was 90 when, in 1972, President Nixon fulfilled her dream, signing a proclamation declaring Father’s Day an official federal holiday. The “Mother of Father’s Day” died in 1978 at 96, mission happily accomplished.
Sadly, the “Mother of Mother’s Day” didn’t fare as well. Horrified at the commercial turn her holiday had taken, Anna Jarvis spent much of her life railing against the florist, candy and greeting card industries. To her, Mother’s Day was a sacred, almost religious event. She scolded children for giving mother store-bought cards instead of making them themselves, and for eating the candy they bought for her.
Tragically, Anna spent her last days in a Pennsylvania mental institution, blind, deaf and destitute. In the ultimate irony, it was the floral industry she so despised that secretly supported her until her death in 1948, at the age of 84. Her last public statement, made to a reporter, was basically an invalidation of her whole life. “She told me with great bitterness,” he said, “that she was sorry she had ever started Mother’s Day.”
Well, Sonora Dodd certainly wasn’t. And good old American consumerism isn’t either. After all, without Mother’s Day, there might never have been Father’s Day, which, by the way, generates over $1 billion annually in sales.
Today’s gifts for pop have come a long way since the tie and pipe. I’ve been getting lots of e-mails touting the “Best Gizmos for Dad,” and some of them are really cool. Like the FuzeBug mosquito eater, and the PowerPod phone charger, and the StarScope Monocular hand-held telescope, and the NeckRelax portable neck massager. And one that’s, hmm, a little embarrassing but infinitely utilitarian: the BlauxBidet, a hand-held low-pressure water spouter that cleans your you-know-what so well, “Dad will never have to use toilet paper again!”
OMG. What would Anna Jarvis say?