Since Father’s Day as we know it was first celebrated just two years after the first Mother’s Day, the holiday has long been an object of suspicion. Was this just a ploy from card companies and tie manufacturers?
The history of Father’s Day proves that it is a Hallmark holiday, but not for the reasons you think.
Father’s Day was made a national holiday when President Nixon signed it into law in 1972, but it had been a languishing unofficial holiday for over 60 years before that. The holiday was created by Sonora Smart Dodd, who felt that her father, a widower twice over and sole caregiver for her family, deserved recognition. After hearing a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, Dodd decided that there should be such a day for fathers, too.
Dodd wanted that day to be June 5, her father’s birthday. The pastors who had agreed to write Father’s Day sermons needed more time, so the celebration was pushed back to the third Sunday of June. Other local congregations joined the effort and Spokane celebrated its first Father’s Day on June 19, 1910. The holiday was limited to small, nationally-unrecognized celebrations until much later.
Dodd’s campaign for Father’s Day received a much different response than Anna Jarvis had when she started Mother’s Day just two years earlier. Jarvis envisioned a holiday for “sentiment, not profit.” By 1920, she was already protesting the holiday because of how commercialized it had become. She would actively campaign against the holiday until her death, including a terrific incident of throwing one restaurant’s “Mother’s Day Salad” on the floor.
Dodd did not have that problem. Father’s Day wasn’t commercialized because no one was celebrating it. Although President Woodrow Wilson (who had years earlier signed Mother’s Day into a national holiday) supported the holiday and even opened one of Spokane’s celebrations, he could not encourage Congress to move on the issue.
When Father’s Day was not catching on, Dodd got flexible. She’d initially appealed to people to honor their fathers with a genuine show of emotion. Then, instead of appealing to an emotional bond between children and fathers, Dodd moved on to rugged manliness. She swapped the roses for rugged dandelions.
Dodd’s first three campaigns for Father’s Day were, like Jarvis’s before her, about sentiment. The approach that actually worked? Profit.
The ubiquitous Father’s Day tie is not just a cautionary symbol of the creeping commercialism of holidays. Father’s Day would not exist without it. After over twenty years attempting to make Father’s Day a nationally recognized holiday, Dodd teamed forces with another group interested in the holiday: The Associated Men’s Wear Retailers. Eventually that group helped form the larger Father’s Day Council, which helped create the holiday we know today.
Unlike Jarvis, who was disgusted at how quickly Mother’s Day became about buying gifts, Dodd was happy to have companies supporting the holiday. Leigh Eric Schmidt describes the group in “Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.” “All along she simply loved gift giving and considered fathers richly deserving of this familial reciprocity.”
With Father’s Day, we might now be experiencing the reverse of what Jarvis experienced after creating Mother’s Day: a holiday becoming more sentimental, not less. Historian Carl Anthony, best known for writing about the women behind our country’s presidents, has also chronicled Dodd’s creative and tireless advocacy on behalf of America’s fathers. Anthony uses past Father’s Day cards as evidence for how the American public felt about fatherhood throughout history. The originals were as unsentimental as possible: fish, ties, and pipes. But throughout the 40s and 50s, a little “closeness” seeped in. Suddenly, there were pictures of children and fathers on the cards, not touching, but clearly enjoying life together.
You might see even more evidence of this when you pick out this year’s card. All of the original themes are still there, so if you want to be traditional you can go for the unsentimental golf card. You can also do Sonora Smart Dodd proud by picking a blank card and telling your Dad how you really feel.