Although the sentimentalized image of American motherhood was a product of the nineteenth century, it was not until the Progressive era that Americans adopted a special holiday in honor of that vision. The plan to reserve one Sunday each year for honoring mothers originated with Anna Jarvis, a Philadelphia spinster who intended to memorialize the anniversary of her mother's death through a public holiday. However, initial observances of the new holiday, in May of 1908, did not win immediate popular approval for the continuation of the project. This essay will examine the cultural motives and pressures that transformed Mother's Day from the crank idea of one woman into an annual social custom.
I shall show how the holiday was conceived by Jarvis, furthered by the American Sunday school movement, but not popularly accepted until the meaning of the new celebration was defined by the Protestant churches and then redefined into a secular celebration of traditional but menaced American values. Ministers and lay contributors to weekly church magazines used the holiday to express their fear that middle-class Protestant culture, the culture so aptly characterized by the symbol of "Mother," was increasingly threatened in the Progressive era. Through sermons and didactic stories, concerned Protestants made of Mother's Day an adult celebration of their version of American values. When the holiday proved to be a powerful tool to sustain morale during World War I, the celebration of Mother's Day became a secular expression of loyalty to national ideals. Thus the history of the creation and promotion of the new holiday suggests that during the Progressive era the observance of Mother's Day fulfilled a social function beyond the purely personal mother-child relationship it ostensibly honored. . . .
. . . By 1912 religious publishing firms were offering to the church schools a selection of Mother's Day materials designed to attract youngsters to the Sunday meetings. Church presses produced special programs for Mother's Day, invitation cards, and celluloid carnations to distribute as mementoes. Teachers and ministers were assured that advance publicity through postcard invitations and newspaper coverage (churches were encouraged to buy space if necessary) would secure a large audience. The "successful observance" of the day was defined in terms of attendance, and ministers were advised that because of the "human appeal of the day" it was a "unique opportunity ... to reach the unchurched and the occasional church-attendant."* Sunday schools were instructed to issue special invitations to mothers and to seat them in a place of honor for the day. It was even suggested that the churches provide rocking chairs and child care for very young children, thereby enabling more mothers to attend. Leaders hoped that the attention to mothers would enlist the cooperation of the home in the Sunday school's effort to gain recruits.
*Rev. Jesse Halsey, "The Work of the Pastor: Suggestions for Mother's Day," Homiletic Review 71 (May 1916), 381. The Homiletic Review was published for use by Protestant ministers and contained sermon outlines and suggestions for prayer meetings as well as feature articles on the role of the minister.