Mommie Dearest

The Hidden History of Mother's Day

Around the corner, the Museum Store, with its repro Tiffany glass and Van Gogh sunflower water tumblers, aims a little higher, even suggesting that you give Ma a pack of $9.95 Women Who Dare knowledge cards that have been issued by the Library of Congress. The blurb on the back of the pack lauds these women's "courage and determination, often braving seemingly insurmountable sexual and political tyrannies," a sentiment that could have been written by Mother Jones herself. Alas, after this one leap into the 20th century, the Museum Store slips back to yesteryear, concentrating on miniature little-old-fashioned-girl bonnets in floral hatboxes, teeny plaster high-buttoned shoes, and ersatz-Edwardian brooches that say Mother.

But why pick on Hallmark and the Museum Store when every other retail business in America is desperate to get into the act? Last Sunday's New York Timeshad to add a whole new section, so dense were the Mother's Day advertisements. The Swatch company bought a full page urging you to purchase a plastic watch that reads, "Dear mum it's time to say thank you," on its face, and even the usually refined Tiffany ran a horrible poem: "It's a sentimental kind of day, But a Mom is waiting near or far away . . . " accompanying an ad for, among other baubles, a $37,500 necklace. Meanwhile, Macy's continued to argue that you should enhance Mamma's kitchen by giving her that dreaded icon of the 1950s, the electric mixer— apparently unmindful of the rage expressed by the nascent National Organization for Women when they threw chains of aprons over the White House fence in a demonstration on Mother's Day, 1967.

A suffragist at the White House, 1917: Woodrow Wilson was a lot happier signing off on Mother's Day than he was endorsing rights for women.
UPI/Corbis-Bettmann
A suffragist at the White House, 1917: Woodrow Wilson was a lot happier signing off on Mother's Day than he was endorsing rights for women.

It's easy to guess what Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony would have thought of all this. But it comes as more of a surprise that even Anna Jarvis, appalled at the commercialization of the holiday she had founded, told a reporter shortly before she died in 1948, at the age of 84, that she was sorry she had ever started Mother's Day.

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