Was the founding of Mother’s Day based on good intentions or was it designed as a marketing ploy? Or was it a combination of both? Using his power and prestige, Philadelphia department store pioneer John Wanamaker helped a local woman officially designate a day for mothers to receive thanks and adulation across the country.

The premise behind Mother’s Day has changed since it was officially proclaimed as a federal holiday back in 1914. In 1908, Anna Jarvis approached Wanamaker for promotional help with a plan for a Mother’s Day. She envisioned a special day that honored mothers with good deeds and simple gestures of kindness. Today, these simple gestures have blossomed into larger efforts that are based on sales and profits. Before the COVID-19 virus took hold of the country, the Statistica Research and Analysis firm predicted that 2020 Mother’s Day spending could reach $26.7 billion.

Anna Jarvis grew up in Grafton, West Virginia. As a young child, she watched her mother teach sanitation methods to church families and provide care for Civil War soldiers. The soldiers often returned home from battle with illnesses and disease. These illnesses spread throughout families and neighboring communities. The Jarvis family was not immune. Anna watched seven of her ten siblings succumb to illness before they reached adulthood. After her father, a local minister, passed away in 1902, Anna and her mother left Grafton and relocated to Philadelphia. 

Anna’s mother passed away three years later. Anna’s grief was so intense that she left her job and devoted her life to championing motherhood and other women’s causes. Even after several letter-writing campaigns to heads of state, Jarvis’ proposal to create a nationally-recognized holiday celebrating mothers failed to gain attention and traction. She turned to Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker for help. As a former Postmaster General, Wanamaker wielded political power. He was deeply devoted to his own mother, Elizabeth. Wanamaker felt that she had shaped his own moral and religious beliefs. As a merchant and marketing genius, Wanamaker knew that primarily women shopped at his store. Wanamaker teamed with Pittsburgh food giant H.J. Heinz and advocated for a national Mother’s Day celebration. Wanamaker was even reported as saying, “I would rather be the accepted author of Mother’s Day than to be King of England.”

In May 1908, Wanamaker’s third-floor Egyptian Hall featured a Mother’s Day celebration, led by Anna Jarvis, that included patriotic songs and speakers. Wanamaker enthusiastically promoted the event that presented free white carnations to attendees. Not a fancy flower, the white carnation was Anna’s mother’s favorite and Anna felt it reflected purity and longevity, a salute to mothers. For the next 11 years, Anna Jarvis led Mother’s Day activities at Wanamaker’s Egyptian Hall annually.

Wanamaker was the country’s first merchant to promote Mother’s Day but over time, the holiday transitioned from a day of thanks to a commercial sales opportunity. By the 1930s, Jarvis publicly voiced her dismay with the evolution of the celebration. The holiday that was designed to simply “brighten the lives of good mothers” had become a day of “impractical” gift giving. Jarvis saw large flower bouquets as frivolous and fragile, greeting cards as insincere, and candy as junk. Jarvis never married or had children and she passed away in 1948.

Mother’s Day 2020 will prove to be an interesting holiday. As a result of mandatory COVID-19 store closures, only a small handful of the country’s department stores are in operation. 10 states currently offer sit-down dining, and those restaurants operate at greatly reduced capacity. Boutiques and small retailers are not an option for last minute gifts. 

Perhaps this is an opportunity to return to the original intention of Mother’s Day, set forth by Anna Jarvis. Buy a white carnation, prepare a mother her favorite meal, and perform a “quiet gesture that Mother world appreciate.” 

In a 1909 advertisement, Wanamaker, with his successful marketing flair, summed up his Mother’s Day sentiment. “The Wanamaker store has long ago made this a Mothers’ Store, for it realized that in the mothers, above all others, lies the future of anything.”