While Father's Day is a happy day for millions of Americans, the history of its origin is equal parts heartwarming and tragic.
Sunday, June 20, is Father's Day. Seriously, don't forget. And just to doubly remind you to call your dad on Sunday, I'm going to tell you the history of how Father's Day first came to exist.
Fathers have existed from the beginning of time, but the holiday to honor them is more recent. In fact, Father's Day is less than 100 years old. Its story is threefold—it was inspired by tragedy, it was the brainchild of a woman raised by a widower, and it was made official thanks to the enthusiasm of opportunistic retailers and politicians.
Courtesy of the History Channel
The campaign to make Father's Day a national holiday was not as popular as the campaign for Mother's Day.
As one florist put it, according to History.com, "Fathers haven't the same sentimental appeal that mothers have." Mother's Day was first observed in the 1860s in a divided town in West Virginia. Following the Civil War, animosity was rampant, but both sides were grieving. Activist Ann Reeves Jarvis saw an opportunity to bring the mothers of Confederate and Union soldiers together by observing "Mother's Work Days," in appreciation of the sacrifices mothers made for their sons.
Interestingly, it also took a tragedy for Father's Day to gain traction. In 1908, following a coal mine explosion that killed 362 men, a West Virginia church held a memorial service in honor of fathers. But it was a woman who first campaigned to make Father's Day a statewide event. In 1908, an activist named Sonora Smart Dodd from Spokane, Washington, campaigned in tandem with local YMCAs, churches, and department stores to make Father's Day a holiday equivalent to Mother's Day. Sonora Smart Dodd wanted to honor her father, who raised six children by himself after her mother died. She thought men who sacrificed for their families deserved recognition, too—and not just her father, but every father who did the same.
Courtesy of Peeky
It worked. In 1910, Washington state declared Father's Day a holiday statewide. President Woodrow Wilson—who had declared Mother's Day a national holiday in 1914, unfurled a flag in honor of Father's Day in 1916, by pressing a telegraph button. The idea gradually—gradually—gained traction, and while it was observed by many states, the holiday didn't become official until 1972. Woodrow Wilson's declaration and support of national holidays were in no small part thanks to the war effort, as American morale was struggling and unification was desperately needed.
It was Richard Nixon who made Father's Day official in 1972 while he was desperately campaigning for re-election after a wildly unpopular war effort.
Neither holiday—Father's Day nor Mother's Day—would have been successful without the help of large retailers who quickly smelled profit. Anna Jarvis, the daughter of "Mother's Working Days" creator Ann Reeves Jarvis, pushed for Mother's Day in tandem with department stores. The first Mother's Day celebration before it became official was in 1908, when the John Wanamaker Department Store held a promotional event in its honor.
Father's Day wasn't always celebrated in June, as this 1968 department store ad attests. (Courtesy of Ohinemuri Regional History Journal)
Is it slightly unromantic that holidays honoring the immeasurable sacrifices of our parents were successful thanks to opportunistic politicians and profit-seeking retail chains? Yeah, kind of. But is it really, really beautiful that the everyday Americans who pushed for these holidays because they loved their parents fought so hard to honor them that they wanted an eternal spot on the calendar in their appreciation? Absolutely.
Father's Day generates an estimated $1 billion in sales per year, and Mother's Day brings in $23 billion. But, if I may be cliche and borrow that timeless Mastercard slogan, when it comes to the sacrifices our parents make for us, there are some things money can't buy—and a really great dad is one of them.
Thanks to all the women and men who fought to make these holidays real. And thanks to all the fathers who hold their families together—we wouldn't (I mean, quite literally, we wouldn't) exist without you.