Most of us don’t remember a time when Father’s Day didn’t exist, much less know the reason why it began in the first place. While today it is seen as a celebration of everything that our father and father-figures do for us, its origins are much more somber.
The Tragic Incident that Started Father’s Day
Father’s Day in Europe has existed since the 1500s, however, it wasn’t honored in America until the 20th century. The first celebration wasn’t really a celebration at all, though – it was a church service to honor all of the fathers lost in the tragic Monongah Mining Disaster that occurred in West Virginia the previous year. (1)
The Monongah Mining Disaster
On the morning of December 6, 1907, in the mining town of Monongah, a deadly explosion occurred deep in the Fairmont Coal Company’s number 6 and number 8 mines. The blast killed all but four people inside the mine, who later succumbed to their injuries.
Considered to be one of America’s greatest mining tragedies, the explosion killed more than 360 people, 250 of whom were fathers. Roughly 1000 children lost their fathers that day, and the entire community was in mourning. (1)
Grace Golden Clayton, a woman who lived in the town, had also recently lost her father. She understood the deep sorrow that the children of these men were feeling. Naturally, she wanted to do something to not only help ease her pain but the children who lost their fathers that day. (1)
On July 5th of that summer, she convinced the pastor of her church to host a special service to honor fathers, in hopes that it would bring those grieving some solace. That service took place at what is now the United Methodist Church in Fairmont, West Virginia. It was a one-time celebration, however, and didn’t extend beyond the Fairmont Community. (1)
Inspired by Mother’s Day
Mother’s Day celebrations in America began much earlier. They started as part of a reconciliation campaign in West Virginia in the 1860s by activist Ann Reeves Jarvis. The celebration brought together mothers of both Confederate and Union soldiers. (2)
The day became a commercial holiday in 1908 when Jarvis’ daughter Anna wanted to honor her mother by making the day a national holiday. The John Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia sponsored a special Mother’s Day service in their auditorium. (2)
Other retailers saw huge potential for profit with Mother’s Day, and in 1909 45 states observed the day. Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May a holiday in honor of America’s mothers. (2)
Father’s Day Slowly Followed Suit
A year after that first father’s day sermon in West Virginia, Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington began campaigning to make Father’s Day a recognized holiday as well. She was one of six children who were raised by their father after their mother passed away, and she wanted a way to honor her own father who essentially had to play both roles. (2)
She went to the YMCA, local churches and shops, as well as government officials to gather support for her idea. She was successful, and the first state-wide celebration of Father’s Day happened in Washington State on June 19, 1910. (2)
The holiday spread much slower than Mother’s Day, however, because fathers weren’t seen to have the same sentimental impact as mothers in the eyes of retailers. Despite that, however, by 1924 President Calvin Coolidge encouraged all states’ governments to observe Father’s Day. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation that made Father’s Day a federal holiday. (2)
Today, it is celebrated on the third Sunday of June every year. (2)
A New Type of Celebration
Essentially, what started out as a day to honor fathers who have been lost is now a day to celebrate all fathers and father-figures. This includes step-dads, adopted dads, foster dads, grandfathers who raise their grandkids, and any other person in your life who fills that role in your life.
Thank you to all the amazing fathers out there – past and present – who help to raise our future generations. Hats off to you!