Was it easier being a mother in 1908?
On the first Mother's Day 100 years ago, moms had a tough – but rewarding – job, just as they do today.
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Historians warn against romanticizing marriages of the early 20th century, when women still had to wed out of economic dependence. Husbands had the final say about domestic decisions and controlled family income. A mother could not be the natural guardian of her children unless they were illegitimate.Skip to next paragraph
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In the early 1900s, about 10 percent of families were single-parent households, partly because of death and partly because of a high rate of abandonment. "A lot of women were living apart from their husbands," says Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University.
Despite the challenges, Coontz does not suggest that there were no happy families. "If you had a husband who was a good person as well as a good provider, you were fortunate," she says. "If you were a wealthier mother in the city, you probably had a nanny and a housekeeper. And if you were in a small town, we might be envious of the neighborly interactions. It was a time when people still sat on front porches and did a lot of visiting."
Even so, Professor Mintz says, "Life was tough in ways we don't appreciate." Life expectancy was 51. Infant mortality was high. Most women could not vote.
In 1907, Laura Clarke Rockwood wrote poignantly in The Craftsman magazine about the need to simplify housekeeping: "This mother of to-day hurries from kitchen to nursery and over the other parts of the house, performing as best she can the many home duties of our times. But she is so overwearied in the doing of it all that the deep well of mother love which should overflow, flooding the world with happiness and cheer, runs well nigh dry at times."
As one solution, Mrs. Rockwood proposed moving meal preparation out of the home: "There should be food kitchens easily accessible to every home where cooked foods can be bought cheaply because of consolidation, and delivered hot to our homes with promptness and regularity in pneumatic tubes perhaps, or by whatever means the master mind shall decide is the cheapest and the best."
Her pneumatic tubes remain a dream. But cooks of 2008 have an alternative. It's called "takeout" and "home delivery."
Two months before the first Mother's Day observances, President Theodore Roosevelt addressed 200 delegates who gathered at the White House for the first International Congress on the Welfare of the Child, organized by the National Mothers' Congress.
Speaking of "the supreme dignity, the supreme usefulness of motherhood," he said, "The successful mother, the mother who does her part in rearing and training aright the boys and girls who are to be the men and women of the next generation, is of greater use to the community, and occupies, if she only would realize it, a more honorable, as well as a more important, position than any successful man in it."
A century later, his lofty idealism might serve as a fitting tribute to mothers everywhere this Sunday as they celebrate – simply or lavishly – a day that is theirs alone.