Mother's Day may seem like a fairly innocuous holiday for most people, but not for its creator, Anna Jarvis. Although the holiday was meant as a tribute to the women who commonly lost children and persevered through the difficult days of the Civil War, it became a woeful reminder of commercialism—and ultimately led her to become institutionalized.
Jarvis lived about two hours south of Pittsburgh in Grafton, W.Va., the same birth place of Maxine Bruhns, who has been the director of the University of Pittsburgh's Nationality Rooms for more than 50 years and is a distant cousin of Jarvis.
Bruhns spoke with 90.5 WESA's Sarah Kovash about Jarvis' inspiration for the holiday and why she would hate what it has become since its inception.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
SARAH KOVASH: Tell us about Anna’s mother, because she was an inspiration for this, right?
MAXINE BRUHNS: Yes. Her name was Anna Reeves Jarvis and she, during the Civil War, she had lost eight of her 11 children to infections and diseases. And so Anna lived and she thought mothers all over the United States should know this because a lot of people didn't know why their kids were dying. And so she formed many women's clubs, mothers’ clubs, taught them how to dress bandages and because of that, she began to admire mothers very much. And then Anna heard her one day pray to God that she hoped that someday somebody would help there be a Mother's Day, where mothers would be recognized. And Anna heard that and she took it seriously. So when her mother died in 1905, she said, “Mother, you one day will have your mother’s day.” And she went to work.
KOVASH: So this was definitely about celebrating mothers and being a very pure holiday to say, “Thank you for what you do.” It's become a very commercialized holiday now. How do you think she would feel about that?
BRUHNS: I know how she felt about it, because she wanted the flower to be the white carnation because it was her mother's favorite flower. And pretty soon, the flower merchant started making paper carnations and she was furious. She said, “You can't do that, you can't commercialize this tribute to mothers.” And she just kept fighting it and lost. And she actually ended up off her rocker and had to go to a mental institution at age 70 and died there at age 84. She just could not win the war against the commercial.
KOVASH: Well, Mother’s Day, like we said, is a little more commercialized now. But if she were here now, what do you think she would think would make the ideal Mother's Day? What's the best way to celebrate?
BRUHNS: I think she would say that all the children would gather with their mother, if there's only one child, they would take her to dinner. They would maybe take her to church, whatever church would be, it could be Muslim, or Japanese, or Buddhist, or whatever, and just do that one day to thank her for giving birth to them and being their teacher for many, many years.