By Jan White
It probably comes as no surprise that the campaign to celebrate Father’s Day as a national holiday wasn’t met with the same enthusiasm as Mother’s Day, although both celebrations originated around the same period of time. While listening to a Mother’s Day sermon at her church in 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd decided that fathers also needed a day of recognition. Dodd was one of six children raised by their single father, William Smart. Smart, a veteran of the Civil War, was left a widower when his wife died while giving birth to their sixth child. Dodd thought it only fair to pay homage to him and other dads like him, so she visited local churches, YMCAs, shopkeepers, and government officials in hopes of drumming up support for her idea.
On June 19, 1910, Washington State celebrated the first statewide Father’s Day.
When the idea was first introduced, not everyone was on board. After all, it was 1910 – and the men of that era had seen how Mother’s Day was celebrated…with cards and gifts and sentiment that, according to historian Tim Marr, were considered frivolous and unmanly. And since men were the primary breadwinners in the family, gifts given to them would likely come from money they had earned, which made the celebration seem all the more commercialized and insincere. Dodd, however, didn’t let the naysayers stop her. Slowly the holiday spread. According to historians, Dodd’s enthusiasm for a Father’s Day celebration was contagious enough that Virginia created a National Father’s Day committee in 1921, and New York City created one in 1936.
During the 1920s and 30s, a moment arose to scrap Mother’s Day and Father’s Day altogether in favor of a single Parent’s Day holiday. Activist Robert Spere rallied a group in New York, saying that “both parents should be loved and respected together.” Ironically, it was the Great Depression that derailed this effort. While struggling to survive, retailers doubled down, using the holiday to promote clothing sales like neckties, hats, socks, pipes and tobacco, golf clubs, or other sporting goods. Then when World War II began, advertisers spun Father’s Day as a way to honor American soldiers. Father’s Day may not have been a holiday, but by the end of the war, it was definitely a national institution. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making Father’s Day a federal holiday.
Unlike Anna Jarvis, the creator of Mother’s Day, who died alone, penniless, and embittered about the holiday she started, Sonora Smart Dodd lived to see her life’s work come to fruition, proud that what started as a day to honor her father grew into a national celebration of all fathers.