KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's hard to imagine how anyone could get riled up by a Hallmark card showing a serene mom clutching roses, but that's only if you don't know the story of Anna Jarvis.
She's the person most credited with turning the second Sunday of May into Mother's Day, which this year celebrates a milestone: 100 years.
But another person who helped launch the national holiday, with the stroke of a pen on a proclamation, was the U.S. president in 1914, Woodrow Wilson.
Take all of that -- Mother's Day, vintage Hallmark cards and President Wilson -- and you have a new exhibit. Two, in fact: one in Kansas City, Mo., at the Hallmark Visitors Center, and one in Staunton, Va., at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum. (Wilson was a Staunton native and, coincidentally, Jarvis graduated from a college there.)
Give Hallmark credit for including in its display a thank-you letter from Jarvis to Wilson, because Jarvis was no fan of card makers. In her view, the holiday she crusaded for -- a day she'd hoped would be reverential and contemplative -- was ruined by commercialization as early as the 1920s.
By some accounts, she spent the rest of her life trying to take back, actually rescind, Mother's Day.
"A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world," Jarvis reportedly said. "And candy! You take a box to Mother -- and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment."
She's said to have called florists and the makers of greeting cards and candy "charlatans, bandits, pirates" and even ... termites.
She had a way with words, that Anna Jarvis.
To learn about her we turned to Andrew Phillips, curator at the museum in Virginia, who was in Kansas City earlier this month to drop off Wilson family artifacts for the exhibit. He also visited the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial -- Wilson, as you may know, was America's president during the "Great War."
The notion of a Mother's Day was initially a "fairly radical idea," Phillips
says, part of the broader movement toward women's rights and equality in the 1860s and '70s. Julia Ward Howe's 1870 poem "A Mother's Day Proclamation," coming just after the carnage of the Civil War, was really a call for peace. (You may know Howe for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic.")
Anna Jarvis' mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, was an activist who offered medical care to soldiers of both sides during the war, primarily in West Virginia. She organized Mothers' Day work clubs, aid organizations that tried to lower infant mortality, among other public health projects.
It was her death on May 9, 1905, that led to what we know as Mother's Day.
Around the second anniversary of her mother's passing, Anna Jarvis honored her at a small gathering of friends at her home in Philadelphia. And on May 10, 1908, Jarvis arranged for 500 white carnations, her mom's favorite flower, to be handed out in a ceremony at the Grafton, W.Va., church where her mother had taught Sunday school.
The campaign for an official Mother's Day would slowly build, starting with proclamations by communities in West Virginia, then spreading to other cities and states. West Virginia made it a holiday in 1910. Jarvis, who started a group called Mother's Day International Association Inc. (she was president), and others lobbied government officials by writing thousands of letters.
And on May 8, 1914, the U.S. Congress, in a joint resolution, established the second Sunday of May as Mother's Day. The next day, Wilson issued a proclamation. The document (a copy of which is in the Hallmark exhibit) urged Americans to display flags "as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country."
Jarvis thanked the president ("Your Excellency") in a letter. Mother's Day, she wrote, would be "a great Home Day of our country for sons and daughters to honor their mothers and fathers and homes in a way that will perpetuate family ties and give emphasis to true home life."
As far as we know, Phillips says, Anna Jarvis herself was not a wife or mother.
The holiday she worked so hard for was supposed to be about sentiment, not profit. Jarvis chafed at the idea of giving mothers store-bought anything. She started complaining almost right away about how the day was being misinterpreted.