On Sunday 10 May many Australians will celebrate Mother’s Day. The tradition of gift-giving on Mother’s Day, although well-established in the USA, did not begin in Australia until 1924. In 1870, American writer and women’s rights activist Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, had proposed that a mother’s day for peace be commemorated every year in June. Ann Jarvis, a peace activist who nursed wounded soldiers during the Civil War, created mother’s day work clubs and by 1914 US President Woodrow Wilson officially declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day.
During the 1920s Mother’s Day became commercialised in the USA, with card companies 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 1948.
After WWI many Australian women were no longer mothers or were war widows; there were also many women who’d never become mothers or wives because a whole generation of young men had been wiped out in the trenches of the Western Front.
In 1923, Sydney woman Mrs Janet Heyden started the tradition of gift-giving on Mother’s Day after becoming concerned for the lonely, forgotten aged mothers at Newington State Hospital where she visited a friend. She successfully campaigned for local schools and businesses to donate gifts to the ladies.
Mrs Heyden was interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Mother’s Day, Sunday 9 May 1954.
“I was on the committee of the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Strathfield. That was when I decided something should be done to brighten the lonely lives of the mothers there. I organised gifts for them on Mother’s Day. Little things like hairpins, a hankie or a cake of soap meant a lot to people like that. Then I thought, why stop at them? So I appealed to the public through the newspapers to remember the mothers of Sydney. The gifts started to pour in.”
Donations ranged from talcum powder and soap to knitted scarves and mittens. Confectionery manufacturers, leading firms, and the Sydney Fruit Market all contributed. Mrs Heyden also visited many Sydney schools, asking the pupils for help. “I want 10in. x 12in. bags with double drawstrings” and the pupils from some of the schools made more than 200 of them – and filled every one for her.
“The Mayor of Leichhardt used to drive me around to the old mothers of the district with my gift parcels. For seven years in succession the appeal through the newspapers made sure that hundreds of mothers who would otherwise have been forgotten received a Mother’s Day gift. It was wonderful. Today, of course, a gift for mother is just the natural thing.”
Among the recognition Mrs Heyden received for her work were letters from King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, the Duchess of Gloucester, Lady Mountbatten and Gracie Fields. Mother’s Day is a billion-dollar industry in Australia and while it initially began to promote peace and support women, over the years it has become an occasion for family reunions in Australia. Today, Mother’s Day is a day for all women.