A Collector's Celebration Of Mother's Day

April 9, 2013

"M" is for the million things she gave me. . .
Mom. Artists of every sort have always found her fair game. There've been moms in song ("My Mammy"). Moms in story ("I Remember Mama"). Moms on stage ("Mother Courage"), on screen ("Mamma Mia!"), and on television (who can forget "My Mother, The Car"?)
These are the moms you've heard of. The famous ones. Some of the depictions were more successful (and definitely more flattering) than others. But the vast majority of mothers are unsung, taking center stage only in our hearts. Fortunately, at least once a year, each and every mom has her moment in the sun. That's when the second Sunday in May rolls around, and with it, our annual celebration of "all things Mom": Mother's Day!
"O" means only that she's growing old. . .
Over the years, from Mother's Day to Mother's Day, one of the most time-honored and heartwarming representations of motherhood has been the Madonna. With or without the Christ Child, the image of Mary was a particular favorite of artists during the medieval and Renaissance eras. Since no contemporary illustrations existed, each artist envisioned the Madonna according to his or her own imagination, incorporating individual concepts of motherhood and prevailing artistic trends of the time.
Twentieth-century artisans were also inspired by the Madonna concept. During the 1940s and '50s, almost every well-known ceramics firm included a Madonna figurine in its spring line (although many remained on store shelves). As Reuben Sand, founder of Madison's Ceramic Arts Studio later recalled, "We just did not do well with the religious stuff. Except St. Francis. He was always a good seller."
Nowadays, however, collectors are drawn to these ceramics for their innate beauty and their endless variations on a single theme, as interpreted by a wide variety of artists. Heading the roster of desirable mid-century Madonnas are those by Ceramic Arts Studio, each vastly different and each by principal designer Betty Harrington. Known for her attention to detail, Harrington always presented proposed religious designs to the nuns at a nearby convent. Only with their seal of approval were the figurines a "go."
Every ceramic designer had signature traits, which carried through in their Madonnas. Betty Lou Nichols, best known for lady head vases, specialized in figurines with lush, black, three-dimensional eyelashes and bright pink lips; these even show up, somewhat unsettlingly, on her Madonna planter. Hermione's trademark - hair, fashioned of actual wire - pops out from under the Madonna's veil. Hedi Schoop used minimal detail for maximum effect; only the barest outlines convey the prayerful demeanor of her blue-robed, triangular standing Madonna. Howard Pierce went one step further. His best-known Madonna figurines are essentially abstracts; spare, curving lines suggest the Mother and Child. Regardless of designer interpretation, ceramic Madonnas serve as graceful, ongoing reminders that every day should (at least in some small way) be "Mother's Day."
"T" is for the tears were shed to save me. . .
There is, of course, always that special day in May to make sure you remember! Although many view Mother's Day as a "modern" holiday, the custom actually has its roots in ancient times. There was an early Egyptian festival honoring Isis, "Mother of the Pharoahs," as well as March festivals in honor of Greek mother goddess Rhea and her Roman counterpart, Cybele, "The Great Mother." Although some of the early traditions may seem arcane (honey cakes, anyone? dancing girls?), at least one has stayed with us to the present day: a gift of flowers as part of the day's festivities.
The rise of Christianity led to a Lenten observance honoring "Mother Church" (the home church in which early Christians were baptized). By the 1600s, this event had morphed into the English custom of "Mothering Day," which offered temporary relief from the austerity of Lent. Even servants were given the day off to spend with their families, and stringent Lenten fasting requirements were lifted for a day of revelry.
When the Pilgrims came to America, "Mothering Day" remained behind in England. A dim Puritanical view of gaudy festivity and demanding living conditions in the New World left little time for celebration. Mother had to take her appreciation where and when she could find it, since the idea of a specific "Mother's Day" lay dormant in the United States until the mid-1800s.
The unlikely impetus in the renewed push for an American "Mother's Day" was Julia Ward Howe, best known for her stirring lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." In 1870, distressed by the violence of the recently-concluded Civil War, Howe issued a proclamation calling for a "Mother's Day" that would celebrate both motherhood and international peace. It read, in part:
"Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel. . .
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace."
Howe's initially suggested date for the observance - July 4th- garnered little support from those with other plans for the 4th of July. However, by 1873, 18 cities across the United States were observing a "Mother's Day" on an alternate date (June 2nd), their get-togethers paid for by Howe. Unfortunately, when the funding ended, so did most of the "Mother's Day" gatherings.
"H" is for her heart of purest gold. . .
Howe's plan may have been short-lived, but, thanks to her fame, she gave a major boost to the modern concept of Mother's Day. Nearly concurrent, and perhaps even more important in the development of the holiday, were the efforts of less-famous Anna Reeves Jarvis. In 1858, Jarvis formed a group in West Virginia to observe "Mother's Friendship Day." Her goal: to promote reconciliation between Union and Confederate backers torn apart by the ravages of the Civil War. Jarvis' "Mother's Friendship Clubs" also promoted better sanitation and basic nursing skills, based on the teachings of her brother, Dr. James Reeves, a noted physician. Following Jarvis' death, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, took up the cause.
Known as "the mother of Mother's Day," Anna M. campaigned for a day honoring both her beloved mother and the goal of world peace. On May 10, 1908, Mother's Day had its first official observance at Andrew's Methodist Church, Grafton, W. Va., where Jarvis' mother had served twenty years as a Sunday School teacher. White carnations, Mother Jarvis' favorite, were presented to each person attending - two for mothers. (The carnation tradition has continued to the present; nowadays, however, white carnations honor mothers who have died; red or pink carnations are presented to mothers who are living.)
Through Anna M.'s efforts, the idea of a nationwide Mother's Day finally caught fire. Later in 1908, Nebraska senator Elmer Burkett offered a proposal establishing Mother's Day as a national holiday. Although his resolution didn't pass, the observance continued to grow on an unofficial basis. By 1909, there were Maytime Mother's Day celebrations being held in forty-six states, Canada, and Mexico.
Establishing Mother's Day as an officially recognized day of honor became Anna M. Jarvis' primary purpose in life. She petitioned anyone she felt might be of help - social and business organizations, prominent individuals, church groups, and governmental entities. Among those listening was the powerful World's Sunday School Association. Thanks to the Association's political influence, Anna's hard work paid off. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation proclaiming the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.
For Anna, the reality proved to have significantly less appeal than the dream. Having ceded control of "her" holiday, she became increasingly displeased with the way others used - or, in her opinion, misused - it. When the trade publication Florists Review gleefully exulted "This is a holiday that can be exploited," Anna was incensed. Legal grappling occupied her later years: a 1923 suit to stop a Mother's Day observance, a 1930s "disturbing the peace" citation for disrupting a flower-selling venture by the American War Mothers, a 1934 campaign against a postage stamp featuring the words "Mother's Day" framing a portrait of "Whistler's Mother,” and an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to copyright the term "Mother's Day" itself.
Jarvis' major foe was the flower industry, for whom Mother's Day proved an unexpected, but heartily welcome, sales bonanza. According to Anna M., florists were "charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and other termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations."
Ironically, it was the industry she railed against that assisted the aging, cash-strapped, health-challenged Anna; unknown to her, the Florist's Exchange paid for her care. Anna M. Jarvis died in 1948. Although she was childless, Mother's Day, the child of her imagination and determination, continued to flourish.
"E" is for her eyes, with lovelight shining. . .
Envisioning Mother's Day as a noncommercial celebration, Anna M. Jarvis was definitely in the minority. Next to Christmas, it's the biggest holiday of the year for gift purchases. Cash registers work overtime at florist shops, restaurants, phone companies, and the post office, all of which experience peak volume. In recent years, the National Retail Foundation has estimated that Mother's Day purchases bring in 14 billion dollars annually. $14 billion. Of that amount, nearly $2 billion is spent on Anna's old nemesis, the flower industry. Almost $700 million goes toward greeting cards. There's about $3 billion spent on dining out, $2 billion for jewelry, $1 billion or so for clothing, plus plenty left over for such miscellaneous delights as books, CDs, consumer electronics, housewares, gift certificates, "personal services" (spa visits, salon treatments and the like), and "other" (which probably includes lots of boxes of chocolates).
Commercialization, however, can't diminish the unique and quite sincere tug that Mother's Day makes on our heartstrings. The florist coolers brimming with flowers and the racks laden with greeting cards would not exist if there were no market for them. It's Mom's special day, and we want it to be perfect. That's why we take the time to choose just the right bountiful bouquet, making sure the colors and the posies are Mom's personal favorites. We read through card after card, finally selecting just the right one, its beribboned beauty and straight-from-the-heart message letting Mom know we're grateful for all she's done. That we care (as if she really needed to be told). Skyrocketing sales may have propelled Mother's Day to the top of America's holiday list, but honest sentiment remains its linchpin. Anna M., sitting on a cloud somewhere, would surely approve.
"R" means right, and right she'll always be. . .
Retro Mother's Day cards, incidentally, make pleasantly peaceful (and extremely affordable) display items, just right for the second Sunday in May - or any day of the year. Especially desirable are vintage cards from the 1940s and '50s, many accented with velvety flocking, tiny "jewels," or bits of real ribbon and lace surrounding their illustrations of festive nosegays and overflowing floral baskets. Group them together to highlight their variety. Or, showcase them with a single ceramic Madonna, surrounded by fresh flowers, in a sprightly celebration of spring. You may even want to put together a display for Mom. She will, as always, thank you effusively.
Moms. Where would we be without them? Well, obviously, not here! Thanks for everything, Mom - and Happy Mother's Day!
Put them all together, they spell "MOTHER",
A word that means the world to me!
Donald-Brian Johnson, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on mid-twentieth century design, including the recent "Postwar Pop," with more on Mother's Day traditions. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com. All photos hy Donald-Brian Johnson.
Lyrics to "M-O-T-H-E-R” (A Word That Means The World To Me), by Howard Johnson, copyright 1915.
Additional interesting information on Mother's Day, its history, and customs, can be found at: www.mothersdaycentral.com

Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson is a nationwide columnist, and the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. His most recent, "Postwar Pop," is a collection of his columns.


More Articles