The woman behind Father’s Day and how the third Sunday in June became a national holiday
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IDAHO FALLS – Many people celebrate Father’s Day without giving it a second thought.
This year marks 50 years since it became an official holiday, according to History.com. President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation in 1972 designating the third Sunday in June as a day to recognize and honor the role of fathers in society.
President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a similar proclamation recognizing Father’s Day six years prior and President Calvin Coolidge gave his support to its observance in 1924.
But the origins of Father’s Day go back much farther — 112 years to be exact — and a woman is credited with its creation.
How Father’s Day began
It had been one year since Anna Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia when Sonora Smart Dodd had the idea for a similar day honoring fathers.
Dodd, 27, was sitting in church listening to a sermon in her hometown of Spokane, Washington. The year was 1909 and it was Mother’s Day.
“Dodd was bothered that there wasn’t a day to honor her Civil War veteran father (William Jackson Smart) who raised her and five younger brothers alone,” ABC News reports.
His wife, Ellen, died while giving birth to their youngest child nine years prior, according to an article from Almanac.com.
Over the next year, Dodd worked to drum up support for her idea. She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers and government officials. She proposed June 5, 1910, for a celebration because that was her father’s birthday. Church ministers ultimately selected the third Sunday in June “so that they would have more time after Mother’s Day (the second Sunday in May) to prepare their sermons.”
“Thus, on June 19, 1910, the first Father’s Day events commenced: Sonora delivered presents to handicapped fathers, boys from the YMCA decorated their lapels with fresh-cut roses (red for living fathers, white for the deceased), and the city’s ministers devoted their sermons to fatherhood,” one article says.
Word got out about the Father’s Day celebration, but it wasn’t widely accepted at first.
Many people felt it was silly to celebrate fathers because, at that time, men dominated nearly every aspect of society. Men, in particular, felt it was too similar to Mother’s Day and the idea of getting flowers as gifts were unappealing.
“They scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products—often paid for by the father himself,” one historian is reported to have said.
When the idea finally did take off, two National Father’s Day committees were formed — one in Virginia in 1921 and one in New York City in 1936.
Throughout the 1920s, there were attempts to combine both days into a single holiday called Parent’s Day. But during the height of the Great Depression, History.com reports retailers “redoubled their efforts to make Father’s Day a ‘second Christmas’ for men” with the sale of neckties, hats, pipes, golf clubs and greeting cards.
“When World War II began, advertisers began to argue that celebrating Father’s Day was a way to honor American troops and support the war effort. By the end of the war, Father’s Day may not have been a federal holiday, but it was a national institution,” according to History.com.
Dodd’s legacy and the changing role of fathers
Dodd went on to become a well-known poet, sculptor and children’s author. She and her husband, John Bruce Dodd, had one son together.
A bronze memorial plaque honoring Sonora was placed in the Spokane YMCA in 1948. She died in 1978 — six years after Father’s Day was officially adopted as a national holiday.
In 2010, on the 100th anniversary of Spokane’s first Father’s Day celebration, the Dodd family home earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Society’s attitude towards fatherhood has changed and evolved over the years. As ABC News reported in 2018, “Fathers are now seen as significant influences on children; we know from many studies what happens when a father figure is lacking.”
“Today, Father’s Day helps to demonstrate the importance and value of fatherhood — and the gifts beyond material goods that a father bestows on his children and family.”