Henderson County, Kentucky Personalities

Mary Towles Sasseen


The Miami Daily News

May 12, 1935

Mary Sasseen, Not Anna Jarvis, Originator of Observance


By Catherine Rager Gilchrist

Florida retains a peculiar interest in a controversy which has raged intermittently on Mother's Day since 1910, and which has been revived again this year, with the time-worn claim that Miss Anna JARVIS of Philadelphia was the originator of this day of commemoration.

While Miss JARVIS was the leader in a movement, begun in 1907, that culminated in the setting aside of the second Sunday of May as Mother's Day by act of congress, she was by no means the originator of the idea. This honor belongs to a redheaded schoolma'am of Kentucky. As Mary Towles SASSEEN, she spent the greater part of her life in Henderson, Kentucky, on the banks of the Ohio, where she was born. As Mrs. Mary WILSON, wife of Judge Marshall WILSON of Pensacola, she passed the last 18 months of her career in the Florida city. There she died 29 years ago.

This controversy over the origin of Mother's Day in past years waxed industriously, but it was supposed to have been settled definitely long ago in favor of Miss SASSEEN. The facts would seem to justify such a conclusion.

The claims of Miss JARVIS are based on her assertion that a year after the death of her mother, in 1906, she outlined, on May 9, to a friend her desire to dedicate a day to all mothers. That was just 12 years after Miss SASSEEN had published a book entitled, “Mother's Day,” in which she advocated general observance of a day devoted to maternal parents, and 20 years after Miss SASSEEN had inaugurated in the still-used three-story red brick schoolhouse of Henderson the first distinctly Mother's Day ever observed in the land.

This controversy always has held for me a particular interest in that when a very young girl I attended this same red schoolhouse, of which Miss SASSEEN then was principal. One of my vivid recollections was the annual Mother's Day, observed there for the last 48 years.

Another pupil of those days was Mrs. Phillip SCHLAMP of 2134 Biscayne Blvd., who, as Ethel HUTCHINSON, was a schoolmate of mine, and who recalls those Mother Day observances perhaps more definitely than myself; for she lived in Henderson in the same block with Miss SASSEEN for a number of years and felt more intimately than myself the depth of mother love from which sprang the first of these observances.

“Mother love burned to almost divine height in Miss SASSEEN,” said Mrs. SCHLAMP yesterday. “She was all devotion to her mother during the latter's life, and after her death there always stood in the parlor of the SASSEEN home a vase of flowers dedicated to the memory of her mother.

“Allowing due credit to Miss JARVIS for pressing the movement that brought congressional recognition of Mother's Day, it is out of all reason and fairness to attempt to garland her as the originator of the movement.

“But Miss JARVIS herself long was persistent in the claim to origination, despite the fact Kentuckians brought to bear against it. In 1924 a delegation from Kentucky of which I was a member, went to Philadelphia to interview Miss JARVIS on the matter and to lay before her evidence of her error as to priority. She was very discourteous and refused to go into the subject with us at all.”

When Mother's Day was inaugurated by Miss SASSEEN in 1887, in the Henderson school, mothers of pupils were the guests of honor on this day – always then, as Mother's Day now, in early Mary – and programs suited to the day were arranged.

In the hope of spreading Mother's Day among wider fields, Miss SASSEEN, in 1893, wrote and published a book bearing the title, “Mother's Day.” Its theme was the need of children setting aside a day in which to honor the persons of their living and the memory of their dead mothers.

“The ties of home,” she wrote in the introduction, “should be, and usually are, the strongest and most sacred on earth; but the youth if today are irreverent in manner and lacking in the old-fashioned and beautiful courtesy toward their elders which marked the old regime. Most children love their mothers sufficiently, but do not think of the expression of that love; are apt to accept too much as a matter of course.”

The book was dedicated to Miss SASSEEN'S mother and contained suggested programs for Mother's Day observances.

When Miss SASSEEN was a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction in 1889, a favorite piece of publicity advanced by her Kentucky admirers was the claim that she was the originator of Mother's Day.

Miss SASSEEN became the wife of Judge WILSON of Pensacola in the autumn of 1904. She died in the Florida city, April 19, 1906. Five years later the Kentucky legislature, seeking to put a final quietus on the JARVIS claim to originatorship, passed a resolution officially recognizing Miss SASSEEN as the pioneer in the Mother's Day field, she planned the details of Mother's Day, and originated in her hometown with programs as far back as 1888.

The idea spread and in 1893, she published a Mother's Day booklet, which was copyrighted at that time. Many communities picked up the thought, and the observance grew. It grew to such proportions that during the 63 rd congress in Washington during the year of 1914, Mother's Day was adopted as a national institution.

Of interest to Floridians, is the fact that Mary Towles SASSEEN married Judge Marshal WILSON, prominent in Florida's judicial history, and that she died and was buried in that state. (She's actually buried in Fernwood Cemetery, Henderson, Henderson County, Kentucky)


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