Henderson County, Kentucky Personalities

Mary Towles Sasseen


Mother's Day Feature
By Reuben Greene
Milwaukee, Wis.

Once there was a little girl who loved her mother more every day – more when she began to go to school – more when she was in her teens – more when she became a teacher – more when full maturity gave added depth to sweet communion – and most of all when the mother's silent lips could utter no word of consolation.

Bravely this little teacher took up her work. Day by day, she taught the children the essentials of knowledge; but as her mind reverted again and again to her mother and to the sacred sweetness of their life together, she found herself consumed with a great desire not only to help her pupils to value their mothers but also to arouse a great national veneration for Mother.

And so, way back in 1887, she began setting apart one day in each school year for the accomplishment of this purpose. She called the day thus dedicated – “Mother's Day.”

This little girl's name was Mary Towles Sasseen. She was a member of a distinguished Kentucky family and was born in the beautiful little city of Henderson on the south bank of the Ohio river which is also the birthplace of John James Audubon, world famous naturalist. After Miss Sasseen had observed Mother's Day in her own school for several years, she began a campaign to make the observance national.

Her first step was to issue a pamphlet for use of schools. I have a copy of this pamphlet before me as I write. It bears the date of 1893. There are only two of these pamphlets in existence, both of them the property of the Henderson Historical Society. On the title page, the pamphlet bears this inscription: “Lovingly Dedicated to My Mother in the hope that April 20 th (her birthday) Be Annually Celebrated as Mother's Day.”

The opening sentences of this booklet reveal the fact that the idea of a Mother's Day was new not only to Miss Sasseen but also to the world. She wrote: “Having by experience learned how much one can teach a child regarding the lives and works of the poets by our system of Author's Days, it suggested itself to me that by celebrating Mother's Day once a year, much of the veneration, love and respect due to parents might, by song, verse and story, be inculcated in the next generation.

“By a Mother's Day, I mean a day on which parents shall be invited to the school and a programme presented, the recitations being on the subject of mother, the songs referring to the home. Being unable to find anything suitable prepared, I complied the following for my own use.”

In closing her introduction to the first pamphlet ever issued on the subject of Mother's Day, Miss Sasseen said: “This pamphlet is sent forth in the hope of awakening on the part of the child, a deeper appreciation of her who is the central figure of the home. May it strengthen the family bonds, making them more beautiful and tender. May it breathe a hope of that future where language is music, thought is light and love is law.”

About this time, Miss Sasseen made a trip to Springfield, Ohio, the home of her sister, Mrs. (Sallie Theresa) E. W. Olds. She and her sister were successful in introducing Mother's Day into the schools of that city. The Teachers' Manual for the year 1890 provides for the observation of Mother's Day on the school schedule. Prof. Carey Boggess who was then superintendent of schools and who is still alive, remembers well this early celebration of the day. This manual, by the way, is now the property of the Henderson Historical Society.

Following out her campaign for national recognition of Mother's Day, Miss Sasseen traveled extensively and appeared before many educational bodies. About 1900, she gave up teaching, married Judge Marshall Wilson (28 Sep 1904) and left Kentucky to make her home in Florida. Six years later she died (18 Apr 1906) while still endeavoring to promote a country-wide observation of the institution which she had founded.

The year following Miss Sasseen's death, Miss Ann Jarvis of Philadelphia, caught up the mantle that had fallen from the shoulders of the Kentucky teacher and succeeded eventually in persuading Senator Burkett of Nebraska to introduce a bill into the Congress designating the second Sunday in may as a nation Mother's Day. This date was selected because Miss Jarvis' mother was born at that time.

But the Kentucky legislature, conversant with the facts concerning the origin of Mother's Day, passed the following resolution:

“Whereas Mary Towles Sasseen, who was born and reared and was for many years a teacher in the public schools of Henderson, Kentucky, afterward marrying Judge Marshall Wilson of Florida, observed Mother's Day Celebration in the public schools of Henderson as early as 1887 and earnestly labored in Kentucky and other states to have said observance become general;

“And whereas said Mary Towles Sasseen was the originator of the idea of Mother's Day Celebration;

“Therefore, Be it resolved by the General Assembly of the State of Kentucky, That the people of Kentucky, through their chosen representatives in legislature assembly, hereby acclaim Mary Towles Sasseen as the originator of the idea of the celebration of Mother's Day.

“And be it further resolved that full credit should be given said Mary Towles Sasseen for her splendid work in attempting to bring to the minds of children everywhere the full admiration, respect and love due all mothers.”

And that is not all. In the peaceful, shaded Henderson cemetery (Fernwood) stands a white marker, erected by the County Historical Society bearing this inscription, “Mary Towles Sasseen in 1887 Founded Mother's Day.”

It is to be regretted that Mother's Day is not being celebrated as Miss Sasseen conceived it. Her plan was to have it observed in the schools of the land so that mothers and children might be drawn closer together and love and respect for parents thus be engendered. As Miss Sasseen saw it, Mother's Day was the forerunner of the Parent-Teacher's Association. As now observed, Mother's Day is still one of the sweetest of all our anniversaries, but unfortunately the spirit of commercialism leads one unfamiliar with the facts to the conclusion that the day was inaugurated by florists and candy manufacturers.

The years glide by. The Ohio flows majestically along as in the days when the boy, Zachary Taylor, played along its southern bank; the Kentucky cardinals sing in the trees as they did when Daniel Boone roamed the untracked forests and Mary Towles Sasseen sleeps the uninterrupted slumber of her fathers. Justice has been slow in bestowing the credit of founding Mother's Day where it belongs; but time will bring a general knowledge of the facts and then the whole country will join with loyal Kentucky in honoring her who launched her Mother's Day crusade with these words:

“Home, a world of woe shut out;
A world of love shut in.”

This article was used in the Milwaukee Journal magazine section, May 10 1932.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2003, HCH&GS