In 2024 Mothers’ Day will be a century old, after informal beginnings in 1907, when Anna Jarvis of Grafton, West Virginia had a memorial service for her own mother. Many female friends attended and spoke about Anna Marie’s desire for a holiday just for mothers.
Here in the greater Tri-Town area, aka North Central Massachusetts, the concept of Mother’s Day took time to gain traction. In the May 7, 1926 Fitchburg Sentinel, Brooks Pharmacy had the only ad mentioning the holiday and offered a typical Mothers’ Day gift: “Thompson’s Spa Chocolates Boston inn Beautiful “Birth of Love” Package.”
However, this ad was dwarfed by an adjacent quarter page featuring the new Eureka Vacuum Cleaner available at Fitchburg Gas & Electric Light Company. No mention of the holiday; just a nicely-dressed lady pushing an upright model and the slogan: “Spring cleaning? She doesn’t dread it!”
Fortunately, by 1931, Mother’s Day ads start popping up, usually for apparel. My favorite was from Main Street’s Academy Hat Works boasting the quality and variety of their hats including: Sailors, Poke, Boucle Turbans, Small Brim, Panamas or “A Real Swagger Hat” (“Collegiate — very swanky — made of better suede in every wanted shade: 85 cents.”)
I can imagine wearing my Swagger Hat as I wandered down to Central Hardware, a store that definitely got the memo about the holiday. Their company advertised flowers for mother. The hot sellers of 1931? Geraniums, Hydrangeas, Ferns, Begonias, Petunias, Vincas and of course “Extra Large Potted Roses.” Moeckel, the florist was on point with a tagline that is now very familiar: “Say it With Flowers.”
In the 1940s, everyone knew about Mothers’ Day — even if they weren’t celebrating. My friend, Dr. Joe Cronin, (one of seven children of an Irish mother who’d emigrated to Roxbury) told me “Mother’s Day wasn’t a big deal — this time of year we were all out playing baseball.”
Since my mother’s birthday was May 15, and my grandmother’s birthday was May 14, and mid-May coincides with numerous perennials blooming, there was no shortage of lily of the valley and lilacs. Saying it with flowers? Easy-peasy.
However, we do need a holiday that celebrates women who may not have had kids, but whose ideas about nurturance and strengthening their communities influence and extend across generations.
The first local woman on that list should be Eleanor Norcross, daughter of Fitchburg’s first mayor, Amasa Norcross (1872-1873). She grew up on Main Street, graduated from Fitchburg Academy in 1872, attended Wheaton Female Seminar (now College) and became a painter.
She moved to Paris in her 30s and sent paintings, sculpture, furniture, prints, and artifacts back home to Fitchburg to be displayed on the third floor of Fitchburg’s City Hall as well as the Rodney Wallace Library. Her dream was to create an institution that displayed art as well as provided art classes to nurture residents, young and old. So when you visit Fitchburg Art Museum, you are stepping into her dream.
Next, tip your Academy Hat Shop bonnet to Leominster Abolitionist Frances Drake. Author/Historian Mark Bodanza writes in “Leominster Chronicles: Tales from the Comb City” that “Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frances Drake both railed against the fugitive slave law, a measure, which with some irony, was aimed to preserve the Union. It did not, but to the contrary drove a larger wedge between the North and South.
“The two little ladies shared another common experience which motivated their heartfelt efforts – human loss. Mrs. Stowe lost a son at a young age. “It was at his dying bed and at his grave I learned what a poor slave mother must feel when her child is torn away from her,” she wrote.
“Mrs. Drake, who was born Dolly Wilder on October 25, 1814, lost three family members in a six month period before she was eighteen years old. Her mother died in November of 1831, an infant brother, Albert died February 12, 1832 and her younger sister Adeline, passed on May 14, 1832 at fourteen years old. Mrs. Drake took on the role of motherhood at a very young age. Undoubtedly the losses suffered by these two ladies contributed to a compassionate heart and steadfast moral convictions.”
I asked friends to share memories of Mother’s Days past and heard about wonderful mothers all across our region — mothers who received gifts of stemless blooms, and smiled; mothers who only took showers who showed delight at bottles of bubble bath, and mothers who are dearly missed to this day. And so, on this day, celebrate your mum, and yes, you can “say it with flowers,” but if you find the perfect “swagger hat,” pop it on her head.
Sally Cragin is an award winning journalist and the director of Be PAWSitive Therapy Pets and Community Education. Email email@example.com.