Henderson County, Kentucky


Local teacher introduced the idea

The girls loved it. The boys hated it. The girls rummaged through the boxes of buttons, lace and ribbons and thought their young teacher's idea was the best thing since licorice.

The boys begrudgingly went through those trinket-filled boxes, too, but their motivation, instead of enthusiasm for the teacher's brainstorm, was fear of getting a bad report card or having to take an unfavorable note home to their parents.

What their teacher had thought of - and enlisted the students' help with - was a special Mother's Day observation in that spring of 1887 to let moms know how much their children appreciated them. The bright trimmings were to be used on handmade cards intended for those mothers.

That youthful Henderson teacher, Mary Towles SASSEEN, is hailed by Kentucky as the national originator of Mother's Day and a state marker at the site of the old Center Street School recognizes her founder's status.

The commonwealth, however, hasn't yet convinced the rest of America that the local teacher - and not Philadelphia's Anna JARVIS - is the creator of the annual Mother's Day observation.

But Milwaukee believes it, or at least did in 1934 when the Milwaukee Journal noted that SASSEEN deserved credit for the holiday. The newspaper pointed out that in 1893, SASSEEN published a booklet of Mother's Day ideas. That booklet was distributed 14 years before Anna JARVIS announced plans for a Mother's Day and 21 years before Miss JARVIS persuaded a U.S. senator to introduce the bill that resulted in the national observance.

Efforts have been made by a number of Kentuckians - including Miss SASSEEN'S cousin, the late Susan Starling TOWLES - to right that perceived wrong, but the struggle has resulted in nothing but files of correspondence at the local library and the Henderson Co. Historical Society.

Accounts indicate it was Miss SASSEEN'S dedication to her own mother, as well as a firm belief that mother "is the star around which all civilization revolves" that prompted the pretty red-haired teacher to introduce the notion.

According to Miss TOWLES, who was the local librarian, boys were embarrassed by the display of affection for their mothers and especially by the teacher's request that the students "kiss Mama before school and before going out to play."

Nevertheless, the Mother's Day concept caught on and Miss SASSEEN began promoting it in addresses to organizations throughout the state and beyond. Following her visit to Springfield, Ohio, that city in 1894 formally observed a Mother's Day in all the public schools.

Perhaps if Miss SASSEEN'S race for state superintendent of public instruction in 1899 had been successful, her Mother's Day proposal would have become an annual observance in Kentucky schools and attracted more national attention.

But it was rare for a woman to achieve state office (or any office) in that era and the teacher lost. Thirteen years later, a journalist looked back on that race and wrote of Miss SASSEEN, "She was not elected but in the South it takes a woman of unusual ability and moral courage and conviction to stand out and above the rest of her sex."

For most of her life, the Henderson instructor who came from Revolutionary stock and was related to several members of the Transylvania Company was single. It was in 1900 - only six years before her death - that she wed for the first time, becoming the wife of Judge Marshall WILSON.

The couple moved to Florida, where she was to die on April 18, 1906, a date remembered not for her passing, but for the legendary San Francisco earthquake.

Reprinted with permission.
Bicentennial Edition, The Gleaner, March 28, 1992
Written by Judy Jenkins

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS