Motherhood ranks as one of the hardest jobs to do, yet one of the easiest to romanticize.
This Sunday, May 11, as families shower mothers with cards, gifts, and superlatives, they will be part of an observance that had its humble beginnings 100 years ago. On Sunday, May 10, 1908, simple church services in Grafton, W.Va., and Philadelphia honored the nation's mothers. A bill introduced in the US Senate that year failed to establish an official Mother's Day, but it set the stage for a successful measure in 1914.
With their tightly laced corsets, long skirts, heavy shoes, and upswept hair, the mothers of 1908 bear little physical resemblance to their counterparts in 2008, dressed in shorts, Spandex, and sneakers. But as today's busy mothers savor their holiday, some might think longingly of simpler times, before women spoke of "juggling" or "balancing" work and family. They might even be tempted to idealize mothers of a century ago, whose serene images grace family photo albums.
But wait. "It's not a time to be romanticized," says Stephanie Coontz, a historian and author of "Marriage: A History." "Mothers in 1908 spent less time mothering than they do today. Even in the middle classes, they spent much less time with their kids than we would have imagined."
One reason for this time deficit involves work. "Most families needed several wage earners," Ms. Coontz says. "Women took in boarders, did sewing at home, cleaning, and all sorts of jobs that weren't counted as jobs on the Census but were time-consuming."
A photo from that era shows a mother balancing a baby on her lap while she assembles cigarettes at her kitchen table. Two other children stand nearby.
Even mothers without paid employment labored endlessly doing housework. In 1908, a New York settlement worker estimated that the average woman, even in middle-class families, spent 40 hours a week just cleaning and shopping. Laundry was an arduous, two-day task, washing one day and ironing the next. Wood and coal stoves required tending and cleaning.
In 1908, Hoover introduced the electric suction sweeper, revolutionizing housecleaning. "It'll sell itself if we can get the ladies to try it," Mr. Hoover said. Assuming, of course, that the ladies had electricity. A majority of women still lived on farms. Until the New Deal Rural Electrification program was implemented in the 1930s, electricity was unavailable to huge sections of the country.
Although the birthrate was falling in the early 1900s, women still bore an average of 3.5 children. Farm women averaged closer to five.
The mothers of 1908, like their counterparts today, received advice from pediatricians. Emmett Holt, author of "The Care and Feeding of Children," was the Dr. Spock of his era, Coontz says. His advice to women: Don't pick babies up when they cry, and do not breast-feed. And a noted psychologist, Dr. J.B. Watson, cautioned against using pacifiers or indulging in displays of affection. He wrote, "When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument."
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.
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.