Founder of Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis
Anna Jarvis founded Mother’s Day in honor of her mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, who had organized several “Mothers Day Work Clubs” in the 1850s to improve the poor sanitation and health conditions in her rural county. (Library of Congress photo.)

I’m always looking for a way to link the global water and sanitation crisis to our everyday lives here, but even I was surprised when I first learned about the origins of Mother’s Day. I always thought it was a holiday invented by Hallmark. It wasn’t, but we’ve certainly allowed it to be taken over by retailers since its origins. The National Retail Federation says Americans will spend $21 billion this year on Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day was actually established by Anna Marie Jarvis, to honor her mother Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis after her death on May 9, 1905.

My mother and father, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on are from West Virginia, so as a child it was a requirement that I know how to make fried apples and state the names of the most famous West Virginians – Chuck Yeager, Jerry West, Mary Lou Retton, Pearl Buck, and the Jarvis women.

Mrs. Jarvis, mother of Anna Marie, gave birth to twelve children; however, eight of her children died before age seven. So, at age 26, she decided to organize several “Mothers Day Work Clubs” in the 1850s to improve the poor sanitation and health conditions in her impoverished, rural county that had caused the deaths of her children and many others too.

When Civil War broke out in the United States, Mrs. Jarvis asked four of her Mothers Day Work Clubs to make a promise to maintain their friendship and goodwill during that time of division of the states. The members of these Clubs were true to their word, nursing soldiers from both sides and saving many lives.

Her work to bring peace continued after the Civil War ended. Many families were divided by the war, brothers fighting against brothers. Mrs. Jarvis wanted to bring healing to these families, and in 1868 she organized a “Mothers Friendship Day” to reunite families that had been divided by the conflict. Mrs. Jarvis spoke about the purpose of the day:

To revive the dormant filial love and gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth. To be a home tie for the absent. To obliterate family estrangement. To create a bond of brotherhood through the wearing of a floral badge. To make us better children by getting us closer to the hearts of our good mothers. To brighten the lives of good mothers. To have them know we appreciate them, though we do not show it as often as we ought… Mothers Day is to remind us of our duty before it is too late.

When Mrs. Jarvis died, her daughter Anna wanted to honor Mrs. Jarvis’ service to her community and country, and worked tirelessly to make Mother’s Day a national, and now international, reality.

So, this year, why not celebrate Mother’s Day the way Mrs. Jarvis did, with a little peace and justice, maybe starting with water for a Honduran, Ethiopian or Bangladeshi mother.

Donate to any of our projects around the world in honor of your favorite Mothers here.

Posted by Marla Smith-Nilson, Water 1st Executive Director