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The woman who launched Mother's Day

The National Retail Foundation estimates that Americans will spend 1.9 billion dollars on flowers for mom this Mother's Day.
The National Retail Foundation estimates that Americans will spend 1.9 billion dollars on flowers for mom this Mother's Day.
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Mother’s Day is this Sunday. You might be planning to send a card or a dozen roses to Mom. If so, you’re not alone. Mother’s Day has become one of the most commercial holidays of the year.

In the flower business, it’s a little known secret that Mother’s Day trumps even Valentine’s Day for the number of flowers sold. The National Retail Federation estimates that this year alone America will spend $1.9 billion on flowers for Mom.

Mother’s Day is also the most popular day of the year for dining out. It’s traditionally the busiest day for phone calls. It's also a big sales day for jewelry, chocolates and spa packages. All combined, the NRF says America will spend $16.3 billion on moms this Sunday.

You might think Mother's Day was an invention of the floral industry or greeting card business. But actually, the holiday as we know it was started by a woman name Anna Jarvis.

Historian Katharine Antolini teaches at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va. She's studied the life and times of Jarvis.

Antolini says Jarvis was born in 1864. She grew up in West Virginia and one day when she was a young girl she heard her mom praying that someday there would be a day to pay tribute to all the hard work that moms do.

“The story goes that Anna Jarvis always remembered her mother’s prayer," explains Antolini. "And when her mother passes away in 1905, Anna decides to fulfill her mother’s greatest wish and fight to have a day to commemorate what mother’s have given to their families.”

So Jarvis starts a campaign to get people to think about moms on the second Sunday of May, a day that corresponds to when her own mother died. The first official celebration happens two years later in 1907. A church in West Virginia gives a special Mother's Day sermon, extolling the virtues of hard working moms.

As the holiday grows, Jarvis decides it needs a symbol. She picks a white carnation because it was her mother’s favorite flower and it's cheap and easy to buy. Jarvis didn't want anyone to break the bank celebrating mom.

Antolini says there was another reason Jarvis thought the carnation was perfect for Mother's Day: "It’s one of the few flowers that when it dies it doesn’t drop its petals. So it’s the idea of this lasting mother love. That you still feel it long after your mother is gone.”

Soon enough, florists latch on to this idea and they start charging more and more for the signature mother's day flower. Candy makers, card sellers and other businesses start to get in on the act.

Jarvis is furious. She intended the holiday to be a simple tribute, not a chance to cash in. So in 1912 she copyrights the phrase "Mother's Day” and “Second Sunday in May” to try and keep the day from being used by companies for profit.

Antolini points out that Jarvis wasn’t in it for the money. In fact, Jarvis spent the rest of her life and her entire fortune trying to take back what she saw as her holiday.

"She was an odd woman but very passionate. She really considered Mother’s Day her intellectual property, her legal property and she was going to do whatever she could to protect it.”

Antolini says Jarvis eventually died worn out, blind and penniless in a mental intuition in Philadelphia.

So, this Mother's Day, keep in mind you really don't need to spend much to tell your mom you care. A sincere letter or a phone call works well. But if you really want to give mom a flower, a white carnation is still pretty cheap and a classic way to say, “thanks Mom”.