Popular history (which includes Wikipedia) states that the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States was a West Virginian woman named Anna Marie Jarvis who on May 10, 1908 organized a celebration at a local church to celebrate the memory of her mother and to honor all mothers. Following her initial celebration, Miss Jarvis started a campaign, soliciting national executives and politicians to recognize the commemorative day. Her efforts paid off for in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a holiday.
Not to take away from Miss Jarvis’ persistence and hard work (her recognition is certainly deserved), but there’s evidence that some of the seeds for a Mother’s Day celebration were planted many years earlier in Henderson, KY at the impetus of a schoolteacher, Miss Mary Towles Sasseen.
In 1885, Miss Towles, aged 25, became a teacher and the principal of the primary department at the Center Street School in Henderson. She was described as being quite tall with auburn hair, a quick wit, and even quicker smile. She was once quoted as once saying, “Say what you’d like to say, just say it with a smile.”
Her efforts to found a day in honor of mothers started early in her career. Within the first couple of years of teaching, she’d already organized a program in her school to celebrate motherhood. Held on April 20, her own mother’s birthday, she wrote poems and stories that her students recited and invited her students’ mothers to be present.
Miss Sasseen’s efforts didn’t stop with a local celebration. It was said that she traveled extensively, addressing organizations and meetings around the country to promote the idea that there should be a national day set aside to honor mothers. In 1893 Miss Sasseen published a 32-page pamphlet entitled “Mother’s Day Celebration” in which she wrote: “It suggested itself to me that by celebrating Mother’s Day once a year, much of the veneration, love and respect due to parents might, by song, verse, and story, be inculcated in the next generation. By a Mother’s Day, I mean a day on which parents shall be invited to the school and a programme presented, the recitations being on the subject of mother, the songs referring to home.”
Recognition of her efforts to establish a Mother’s Day did not go unheeded by the wider public. In 1899 Miss Sasseen sought state office as the Democratic nominee for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Her biography circulated in newspapers throughout the state, and each included the following declaration: “She is an author and originator of Mother’s Day. Within the past five years she has, unaided, secured the adoption of the day of the day in a large number of States and cities, like Boston, Brooklyn and Little Rock have had from 10,000 to 14,000 pupils in line, singing songs of home and reciting poems in honor of mother (Richmond Climax, June 7, 1899).
Miss Sasseen, who became Mrs. Wilson in 1904, unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see the continued efforts of Miss Jarvis in 1907 or the institution of a national Mother’s Day in 1914. In an ironically tragic twist of fate, Mary Towles Sasseen Wilson died in childbirth in 1906. She had no other children.
However, her obituary from the Henderson Gleaner stated that she “will long be remembered for her institution of ‘Mothers’ Day’ in the schools,” and in 1926 the Kentucky state legislature honored her as the “originator of the idea of a Mother’s Day celebration.”
And we still remember her today!
So three cheers and a big bouquet of flowers to Mrs. Sasseen Wilson for her role in creating (and you can tell my mom I said this) the most wonderful, richly deserved, and mom-tastic holiday of all time!
For more information about Kentucky moms, visit the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.