For the Best Mother That Ever Lived: A Story of Prominent Los Angeles Women, A Fund for Destitute Mothers, and Mother’s Day

by Art Lizotte

Editor’s note: Art Lizotte is a freelance writer, philatelist, and part-time historian, living in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has written several philatelic articles for the Rocky Mountain Philatelic Library newsletter. He became interested in Mother’s Day history when he came across philatelic items highlighting the battle for who founded the holiday, with four people contending for the title. Since then, he has collected all sorts of Mother’s Day items associated with the holiday and researched its history. Art sold the Homestead a Mother’s Day pin (see the photo below) and contacted us to let us know of his work on the holiday, so he was invited to submit this post, with information collection from the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Herald newspapers from 6 April to 5 July 1909, which we hope all you mothers (and others) out there will enjoy. Happy Mother’s Day!

Lulu received the amazing news late that March. 

“I couldn’t believe it.  I had to read the telegram twice.  Anna Jarvis wanted me to lead her Mother’s Day movement, not just for Los Angeles, but for the entire Pacific coast.  My mind started to race in a dozen different directions. I couldn’t contain my excitement. I shouted out loud.  I’m going to make this the best celebration in the country.”

She paused, settled her thoughts, and realized, “I’m going to need help.”

Anna Jarvis lived in Philadelphia and must have felt she needed help if she wanted to make Mother’s Day a national holiday.  When she enlisted Lulu Skinner Lee’s assistance, it came with the instruction to expand the meaning of the celebration.  Lulu knew exactly what she wanted to do.  She was going to ask Mrs. Chalmers (Emma) Smith, president of the Mothers’ Congress and Parent-Teacher Association for public schools to conduct Mother’s Day programs the Friday before May 9th, the designated date for Mother’s Day in 1909. What happened next surprised them both.

“The meeting went extremely well that sunny day in April.  Emma loved the idea and so we set about making some plans.  As we chatted, Emma was telling me how the association was helping the poor children through their emergency committee.  I too saw the poor children and their destitute mothers coming to our church.”

Lulu was married to Reverend Baker P. Lee, a renowned Episcopal minister in Los Angeles. She shared her idea of creating a Mothers’ Fund to help poor pregnant women. At that moment, Lulu and Emma realized that they could use Mother’s Day as the backdrop for a city-wide fund-raising event for destitute mothers.

They dreamed of raising enough money to build a home for these women.  It was a bold plan and they knew they were going to need lots of volunteers, starting with establishing an executive committee.  Lulu became the chairman.  For the treasurer, they enlisted the help of Mrs. W. A. Varcoe, the treasurer of the Mothers’ Congress. And to help with speaking with charity’s patrons and patronesses, they enlisted the help of Mrs. William H. (Maria Boyle) Workman, one of California’s best-known society women and a patroness at so many charity events.

Los Angeles Herald, 9 April 1909.

By the end of April, the Mothers’ Fund executive committee had, indeed, put together plans for an extraordinary fund-raising Mother’s Day celebration.  Miss Jarvis undoubtedly shared with Lulu the success she had working with fraternal orders. The committee assigned the task to Mrs. James T. Neighbors, who received immediate support from all of the city’s men’s societies.  It seemed everyone wanted to be involved. Hotels, banks, businesses, and the leading department stores all wanted to support the Mothers’ Fund and the new holiday.

The women knew they needed something to sell as part of the event.  Hamburger’s, a major department store, donated gingham fabric to a platoon of women to make aprons.  Adding to this, Lulu had a few novel ideas, such as her design of a Mothers’ Day button. It included the white carnation flower that Miss Jarvis designated as the Mother’s Day logo.  Lulu also wrote the lyrics and music for the song, The White Carnation, with the sheet music on sale and sung on Mother’s Day.

“With planning complete, I remember reading in the LA Times an article that made me feel very proud.  It read: ‘Mother’s Day in Los Angeles will forever be associated with the names of Mrs. Baker P. Lee, Mrs. Chalmers Smith and other worthy women who are giving to its observance new meanings, …’ I stopped reading before I reached the end of the sentence. Joy overwhelmed me. I felt my dream of making this the best celebration in the country coming true.”

The Mothers’ Day button, one of which was sold by Art to the Homestead, patented by Lulu Skinner Lee in 1909 with its design was used for the souvenir Mothers’ Congress postcard and the Mother’s Day Poem card. From the Author’s collection.

It was true. Sixty booths were setup all over the city, ready to sell Mothers’ Day buttons, flowers, aprons, and other souvenirs.  Everything started on Thursday.  The Temple Auditorium hosted a Ferris benefit matinee. Every show in town put on a portion of their performances, including the record-breaking play, “The Dollar Mark.”  The men’s fraternal orders held a ball on Friday night.  The public schools had their Mother’s Day programs all set.   They even planned several excursions to the beach by streetcars for “aged and worn” women. And for those women in jail and in the children’s hospital, a troop of women ferried carnations to them on Mother’s Day. 

“On Thursday, I started watching all that we planned unfold.  We were selling buttons so fast we could hardly meet the demand. We moved the button making machine to the window of Hamburgers to fuel the excitement.  You should have seen everyone crowded around, straining to catch a glimpse.  And seeing everyone leave the store wearing the white carnation and the Mother’s Day button with such big smiles, it was almost too much to handle.  It was so exciting!

“And you should have seen all the ladies getting on the rail cars headed for the beach.  We had the best hostess for the task, Mrs. Maria Workman.  Having hosted so many charitable occasions at her home, she was unquestionably an excellent hostess.

Maria Boyle Workman would have been a hostess to the women who traveled via the Los Angeles Pacific Railway to Playa del Rey for a day at the seaside. The railway did not charge the women for their ride on the cars nor in the pavilion where a lunch was provided by ladies of the fraternal societies. From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California and available through the USC Digital Library.

“Finally, Sunday evening arrived. It was all over.  Every event was very successful. Over 2500 people attended the Mother’s Day celebration at the Temple Auditorium. The fund-raising went incredibly well.  Everyone was asking the question; how much money did we raise for the fund? But none of us knew the total amount.  From the beginning, we wanted to keep it a secret. We wanted to make a grand announcement sometime after Mother’s Day.”

The Temple Auditorium was located at the northeast corner of Fifth and Olive streets and was home to the Temple Baptist Church.  It became Clune’s Auditorium for a brief period and then was the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  Sadly though, the building was demolished in 1985 for a residential building.  That complex was never built and the land served as a parking lot for three decades until another developer used the space for a residential complex that’s there today.  This 1920s image, taken from Pershing Square across 5th Street, is from the Homestead’s holdings.

It wasn’t until the third week of June when the amount was announced. General John R. Mathews, president of the Central Bank, was the banker-treasurer for the Mothers’ Fund.  He reported that they collected $2,567 (about $73,000 in today’s dollars) above expenses.  The executive committee was ecstatic! They immediately set aside $2,000 for the destitute mothers’ home.  The balance would go to provide aid for mothers.  But this is when the controversy began. At an afternoon meeting at the Mothers’ Congress’ office, Lulu was verbally attacked by the leadership for believing she controlled the allocation of money as opposed to the Mothers’ Congress.

“Being the Christian woman that I am, I didn’t want to spread ill-will against Emma or the Mothers’ Congress.  It became apparent to me that I should have done more to define who controlled the money after the celebration.  While we both had wonderful plans for the money, I always felt that the Mothers’ Fund was mine to control.  Yes, the Mothers’ Congress played a huge part in the fund-raising and had as many people rallying to their side as I did.  And when three of these fine ladies resigned from their prestigious roles with the Mothers’ Congress, I was beside myself.  In the end, I let the Mothers’ Congress have the money, and I began my plans for next year’s Mother’s Day celebrations in Salt Lake City and Phoenix.”

An interior view of the Auditorium from the Los Angeles Public Library photo collection.

Lulu did go on to organize wonderful events in Utah and Arizona in 1910, but these celebrations, as big as they were, were not as extraordinary as what happened in Los Angeles the prior year.  Was the celebration in Los Angeles the best in all the country that year? Unarguably, yes.

By 1911, Anna Jarvis began discouraging organizers from conducting fund-raising events tied to Mother’s Day.  For her, it took away from the solemness of a day dedicated to honoring the best mother that ever lived – your own.

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