The history of Father's Day

13 June 2016

By Pan Macmillan

While every dog is said to have its day, dads would have to wait until the twentieth century before anyone thought it worth giving them a dedicated celebration.

It would be a woman and the already established Mother’s Day that led to the creation of a Father’s Day – now observed in over fifty countries around the world.

While in Europe the tradition of a Mothering Sunday dates back centuries to a ceremony honouring the church, in America a quite separate Mother’s Day evolved.

This was originally proposed by Ann Jarvis, the daughter of peace activist who’d cared for injured soldiers during the American Civil War. It was first celebrated in the wake of Jarvis’ mother’s death in West Virginia in 1908. Jarvis would lead a successful campaign to have the day officially recognised across America, but later despaired of its commercialisation by greeting card manufacturers. Part of the reason the campaign was so successful, however, was the support it received from retailers, who saw great potential for profit in the holiday.

On July 5, 1908, a West Virginia church sponsored the nation’s first event explicitly in honor of fathers, a Sunday sermon in memory of the 362 men who had died in the previous December’s explosions at the Fairmont Coal Company mines in Monongah. Over 200 of those killed were fathers and left behind their widows and over 1000 sons and daughters. This was, however, a one-time commemoration and not an annual holiday. 

From the age of 16, Sonora Smart Dodd and her five younger brothers were raised by her father, a widower and veteran, on a remote farm on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington in the United States of America. In 1909, Smart Dodd attended a Mother’s Day sermon at Central United Methodist Church in Spokane and felt moved to put forward the idea that a parallel day should be created for fathers.

The following year, and with the help of her pastor, Reverend Dr Conrad Bluhm, and the Spokane YMCA, sermons were given in praise of fathers across the city on 19 June 1910.

While Mother's Day had taken off quickly in the USA, Father's Day was widely mocked by newspapers as another excuse to fill the calendar with promotions and 'commercial' days.

Despite being widely observed and promoted by Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon B. Johnson, it was only in 1972 when Richard Nixon, in the middle of a hard-fought presidential re-election campaign, signed a proclamation fixing Father’s Day to the third Sunday in June, that it became a permanent date on the American, and subsequently the international, calendar. A gift from a nation of founding fathers to dads across the globe.

Stuck for a Father's Day gift? We've got some brilliant gift ideas for dads of all shapes and sizes, take a look here.


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