Social Life

Devotion to Motherhood

Some cultural celebrations have an obscure origin. Not Mother’s Day. Its founding is indisputable. Its founder, Miss Anna Jarvis. The first observance was on 10th May 1908 at Grafton and Philadelphia, USA. Jarvis, reflecting on the importance of mothers after the death of her own mother, began a campaign to have mothers recognised. On the third anniversary of her mother’s death she arranged memorial services in the Methodist churches of her home town and her resident town, at which she distributed hundreds of white carnations. She followed up in 1912 by trademarking “Second Sunday in May Mother’s Day Anna Jarvis founder”. Two years later President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday to honour mothers.

All of this I learnt in the past week. It surprised me that Mother’s Day began in a church. Mother’s Day as I’ve known it has been about flowers, chocolates, presents and breakfast in bed. Sure, it was sometimes acknowledged at Sunday Mass, but usually in terms of Mother Church and Mother of God. So, not much connection.

Mother’s Day crossed the Pacific through the earnest and vigorous efforts of the Methodist Church, and sailed up the Gulf St Vincent to Yorketown, Edithburgh and Adelaide (which is not called the city of churches for nothing). The Methodist church was particularly strong in South Australia, having within its nave twenty-five percent of the population, supported by at least two newspapers, the Chronicle and the Advertiser. Only a year after the first Mother’s Day service in America, Mother’s Day was observed in Australia. South Australians were assured it “is going to be a big thing in this State before many years have passed”. A handful of Methodist churches promoted the day, revealed its history, urged everyone to wear a white flower, wrote letters to editors to inform the general population and held special Mother’s Day services. Later that year, when American evangelists Wilbur Chapman and Charles Alexander held a revival mission in South Australia, they held another ‘Mother’s Day’.

Within a few years Mother’s Day had been taken up around Australia by the majority of newspapers, and in the majority of towns and churches – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, Salvation Army and YMCA.

The Catholic Church didn’t take it up for reasons I’ve alluded to. But why not the Church of England? Well they already observed Mothering Day on the fourth Sunday in Lent. This was a day when Lenten fasting was relaxed, mothers were honoured, and servants and apprentices were given the day off to visit their mothers (and their Mother Church); and everyone enjoyed Simnel cake – a fruit cake decorated with almond paste, and eleven balls of marzipan to represent the eleven apostles. Mothering Day had a long tradition in England, for example 17th century poet Robert Herrick wrote to Dianeme:

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,
Gainst thou go’st a Mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

As with any new idea there were opponents. Some wondered why we needed a day and a white flower to remind us how important mothers are – we might just as well wear a yellow flower to remind us the sun rises and sets every day, wrote one. Others said, “What about a Father’s Day?” –  I’ll leave that for another blog. J D Ugan told Mudgee Guardian readers he could give a lot more arguments in favour of a Rabbit Day, while the Bulletin sarcastically remarked, the best day of all was pay-day. I think J Barnes had a sly grin when he named his race horse “Mothers Day” in 1909. I doubt he was Methodist.

The question is, why was Mother’s Day promoted so ardently and taken up so enthusiastically? Was it a reaction against the women’s rights movement fighting for a political voice, education and greater autonomy? There is some evidence. In 1909 the Register reported that on Mother’s Day in New York, “enormous processions of elderly mothers and fathers marched through the streets as a protest against the new ideas of ‘progressive womanhood’ that are gaining ground in the United States.”

While Anna Jarvis emphasised the importance of each person honouring their own mother, the discourse around Mother’s Day was often instructive – “the duties and responsibilities of motherhood…the best means of training children”. Emphasis was placed on the good mother: “The white carnation stands for purity; its form, beauty; its fragrance, love; its wide field of growth, charity; its lasting qualities, faithfulness — all virtues of a true motherhood.” That’s a pedestal that doesn’t bear the weight of ordinary women.

It wasn’t long before Mother’s Day moved from the church to the till, much to Anna Jarvis’s regret, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She organised boycotts of Mother’s Day and threatened lawsuits against companies. Futile. Even as the editor of the Advertiser promoted Mother’s Day in 1909, he promoted his paper:

‘Mother’s Day is next Sunday.
It comes once a year.
Next Saturday is “The Saturday Express” Day.
It comes every week.
Both are good for the home.

Florists and nurseries were the first to benefit. In 1919 a Newtown nursery sold six varieties of white carnation including the new variety  “Mother’s Day”, at 2/6. Even the Methodist Church got into business with hymns and music, cards and badges, posters and colouring-in sheets, all well-priced, especially in bulk.

However, it took a while for Mudgee, Kandos and Rylstone to embrace Mother’s Day. Other than a Salvation Army service in 1914, the next advertised observance that I found was 1921 at Kandos. As Mother’s Day became increasingly popular in the churches, so it did in the commercial strip. Jewellers like H E Richardson Market Street Mudgee realised the value of sentiment – what about a diamond brooch or a solitaire diamond ring. After the penury of the Depression and War, there was no end of gift choice: from bed jackets to hosiery; boxed stationery to handkerchiefs; “sink heaters to home cleaners…terms arranged to your advantage”.

My personal favourite at the age of ten was a cup, saucer and plate of fine, bone china from Loneragans. My mother’s too!

The featured image is Anna Jarvis founder of Mother’s Day (image in the public domain).

4 thoughts on “Devotion to Motherhood”

  1. I remember Mother’s day from when I was a small child, always a card with a white flower on it and a white handkerchief, these gifts were really special as you had to save up your pocket money for awhile to buy them. Good old days. Shirley Tunnicliff


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