Who moved that apostrophe?

I’m a week late, I know, but Helen’s Mother’s Day piece got me thinking.

How did a day that grew from West Virginian Mothers’ Work Days from 1858 onwards (where mothers worked together to improve their community), and Mothers’ Friendship Days from 1865 (to promote harmony between former opponents in the Civil War), become what we celebrate now as Mother’s Day?

See the difference that apostrophe position makes? Mother’s Day is a day where you do stuff for your mum: sentimental, sweet and ultimately trivial. An inward-focussed family centred event.

Mothers’ Days were a gathering of mothers, time spent together for mutual reflection, when mothers en masse might mobilise politically, which when it occurs is rarely trivial at all. An outward-looking society-focussed event.

No wonder it was changed, but who changed it?

Anna Reeves Jarvis was the woman who initiated Mothers’ Work Days, where women who belonged to Mothers’ Work Day Clubs started by Jarvis around her own town met regularly for action days regarding health and sanitation. The clubs raised money for medicine, hired women to work in families with tuberculous mothers, and inspected food and milk sold in bottles. The movement spread and during the Civil War Jarvis urged the clubs to declare their neutrality and nurse/feed/clothe soldiers from both sides.

After the Civil War Jarvis’ Mothers’ Friendship Days, promoting reconciliation, were celebrated for several years. As you will see, it is at this point in history that the position of the apostrophe gets murky.

In 1870, with everyone’s memories full of Civil War horrors and appalled disbelief at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war, Julia Ward Howe (more famous as the abolitionist who penned “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) started working for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” to promote peace, motherhood and womanhood. All the sources I can find indicate that Howe used the singular possessive apostrophe, but when one reads the proclamation she wrote, the movement of the apostrophe from the plural to the singular possessive position seems odd, as the proclamation is definitely a call to mass action, and the Mother’s Day for Peace was celebrated by gatherings of women, not by women solely in the bosom of their family as occurs in today’s Mother’s Day.

It’s hard, however, to find when the shift occurred, because modern writers are so casual about apostrophes. This makes the histories written of the transition between Anna Reeves Jarvis’ Mothers’ Clubs and the proclamation of a national Mother’s Day suspect, as who can we trust to be scrupulous about reproducing the apostrophes as they occurred in the original documents?

Most modern writers of any skill manage to eschew the much-mocked grocers’ apostrophe, but all one has to do is read any forum online to see people who are obviously otherwise erudite and articulate nonetheless recklessly misusing apostrophes in other cases (and also homonyms, but that can be another discourse).

When Anna Reeves Jarvis died in 1905 her daughter, Ann Marie Jarvis, vowed to honour her mother’s work.
From Wikipedia:

Her daughter Ann Marie Jarvis (May 1, 1864 – November 24, 1948) was born in Webster, Taylor County, West Virginia. Her family moved to Grafton, West Virginia in her childhood. A year after her mother’s death she held a memorial to her mother on May 12, 1907, and then went on a quest to make Mother’s Day a recognized holiday. She succeeded in making this nationally recognized in 1914. The International Mother’s Day Shrine still stands today in Grafton as a symbol of her accomplishments.

By the 1920s, Jarvis had become soured on the commercialization of the holiday. She incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association, claimed copyright on the second Sunday of May, and was once arrested for disturbing the peace. She and her sister Ellsinore spent their family inheritance campaigning against the holiday. Both died in poverty. Jarvis, says her New York Times obituary, became embittered because too many people sent their mothers a printed greeting card. She considered it “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”

What this shows is that between the Mothers’ Friendship Days of 1865 and the Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1914, common usage (or deliberately inculcated and disseminated trivialisation) had shifted that apostrophe from the power of a mothers’ collective action day to the sentimentality of honouring “motherhood”, a conveniently numinous term, and this was now enshrined in law.

In an age where very few people appreciate the distinction between its and it’s, and where people are so confused generally about apostrophes that anywhere there is an ‘s’ there is doubt, I fear that any campaign to reposition the apostrophe where it belongs is doomed to failure. But I resent the way it moved anyway.

Oh, and an exquisite alleged irony to end the life of the woman who bitterly opposed the floral industry racking up huge Mother’s Day profits:

“Anna Jarvis was confined to a nursing home at the end of her life, penniless. Her nursing home bills were paid, unbeknownst to her, by the Florist’s Exchange”

See what I mean? Look where that writer put that apostrophe for the professional association of florists! I’m so dobbing them in to Lynne Truss.

Categories: gender & feminism, language, relationships, social justice, work and family

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