A history of Mother's Day: From campaigns for peace to cards, flowers and family reunions

On Sunday many Australians will spend the day celebrating their mothers and other special women in their lives.

Some mums may be given cards, flowers and gifts, while others may enjoy breakfast in bed or a lunch out.

Mother's Day has long been a part of the Australian calendar, but where did the idea to dedicate the second Sunday in May to honouring motherhood come from?

The modern Australian celebration of Mother's Day actually grew out of calls for peace and anti-war campaigns following the American Civil War (1861-65).

In 1870, American writer and women's rights activist Julia Ward Howe, best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, appealed to women to unite and bring peace throughout the world (later known as the Mother's Day Proclamation).

She proposed that a mother's day for peace be commemorated every year in June.

But the idea of a mother's day did not gain traction until 1908, when West Virginia woman Anna Marie Jarvis held a church memorial to honour the legacy of her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis.

Ann Jarvis had been a peace activist who nursed wounded soldiers during the Civil War and created mother's day work clubs to address public health issues.

Anna Jarvis wanted to continue her mother's work and pushed to have a day set aside to honour all mothers.

In 1914 her campaigning paid off, when US president Woodrow Wilson officially declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother's Day.

"The impact of the Civil War was still there ... and there was also a rising concern that America might find itself involved in another war, particularly given what was happening in Europe," said Richard Waterhouse, emeritus professor of Australian history at Sydney University.

Mother's Day in Australia

But it was not until 1924, following the losses of World War I, that Mother's Day was first held in Australia.

Sydney woman Janet Heyden started the tradition after becoming concerned for the lonely, forgotten aged mothers at Newington State Hospital where she regularly visited a friend.

She successfully campaigned for local schools and businesses to donate gifts to the ladies.

"There were so many mothers who were no longer mothers, so many wives who were now widowed because of WW1, and there were also so many women who never had the prospect of becoming mothers or wives because a whole generation had been wiped out in the trenches of the Western Front," Professor Waterhouse said.

"There was this mood for Mother's Day, and the American Mother's Day fitted better than other mother's days that were celebrated in other countries."

Commercialisation of Mother's Day

It was during the 1920s that Mother's Day became commercialised in the United States, with card companies like Hallmark and florists marketing gifts.

Anna Jarvis was outraged and spent the rest of her life campaigning against the commercialisation of Mother's Day, dying penniless and in a state of dementia in a sanatorium in 1948.

"Mother's Day was part of a very consumer society which America had become in the 1920s and it was very quickly adopted in Australia as well," Professor Waterhouse said.

Today, Mother's Day is a billion-dollar industry in Australia.

A time for family reunions

While Mother's Day initially began to promote peace and support women, over the years it has become an occasion for family reunions in Australia.

"It's not just about recognising the role of mothers, though that's still there, but it's really recognising Mother's Day as a day in which families can get together," Professor Waterhouse said.

"That's becoming increasingly important because in the busy world in which we live, families don't get together as much as they used to."

Today, Mother's Day is a day for all women.

"It's no longer linked to a particular set of values and a particular view of the role of women," the professor said.

"It has a kind of universal appeal and a cross-cultural appeal so that it can appeal to all ethnic groups in Australia."

Father's Day started 'to counter Mother's Day'

And for those wondering about the origins of Father's Day?

"It was basically made up to balance Mother's Day," Professor Waterhouse said.

"Mother's Day was designed to give women greater moral authority and recognition; men's authority at that stage was unchallenged.

"Father's Day was really a kind of a counter to Mother's Day and to some extent a commercial decision."