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Friday, May 7, 2010


Mother’s Day is an undeniably important sentimental holiday in the United States, but also in many other countries around the world. The basic premise is to celebrate and honor motherhood and to demonstrate both personal and societal appreciation for the distinctive role of mothers, usually in some tangible way. Some holidays serve as reminders and provide the motivation and means to assuage guilt for past negligence, through the purchase of greeting cards, gifts, flowers, and restaurant dinners. In order to render sentiments tangible, to reify or express love and appreciation, multi-million-dollar industries have proliferated and expanded to serve these needs. Florists, greeting card manufacturers and distributors, merchants, and restaurants aggressively advertise their Mother’s Day products and services. While the importance of Christmas shopping to our economy is obvious, other sentimental holidays also drive significant consumer spending.

Archives Center collections contain much documentary evidence of holiday celebrations and their impact on society. Greeting card collections contain Mother’s Day cards produced over the years, and advertising history collections document references to Mother’s Day and motherhood as components of advertising campaigns. If guilt sometimes motivates consumer spending for holidays like Mother’s Day, products also have been advertised and marketed in ways calculated to induce parental guilt: mothers worry that they may be not doing enough for their children’s well-being. An advertisement, by claiming that a product benefits growing children, implies that women who fail to purchase the product may fail in their motherly roles. More benign advertising illustration may motivate sales by simply playing upon sentiment and the sweet imagery of motherhood, as in the cover of this 1906 commercially published pamphlet, which presumes to tell women How to Bring Up a Baby” with the aid of Ivory soap.

A product associated with motherhood may be the image itself. Professional portrait photographers continually re-invent the classic imagery associated with motherhood in personal, specific documents of real mothers with their children, as in this soft, elegant portrait of Mrs. E.P. Shaw and her daughter, made by Addison N. Scurlock around 1930, from the Scurlock Studio Records.


  1. I love the Scurlock images. And thank you for sharing about items such as the Ivory Soap pamphlet! It is pieces of history such as that, that made me so interested in the Archives!

  2. It's interesting to think about how images of motherhood have been communicated in particular contexts and towards particular ends - I think they have been as celebratory as they have been heart-breaking.

    The portrait of Mrs. E. P. Shaw and her daughter - to my surprise - reminded me of another photograph depicting a mother and her children: Dorothea Lange's FSA photograph, 'Migrant Mother.' Both share a sense of intimacy and tenderness which, as you note, has been commandeered by industries interested in encouraging us to express our feelings and appreciation through the celebration of market transaction.

    The imagery and affect associated with motherhood and maternity is interesting to think about, as it has near constant explanation. I'm curious about its associations too - to body form, sentiment, and character, all throughout the twentieth century. It's exciting stuff!