Father's Day: A brief herstory


We tie up the loose ends of its creation By Dave Jaffe

Illustration by Roberta Polfus  

Ask any five strangers you meet on the street, "Hey, do you know the history of Father's Day?" Four will avert their eyes and hurry away, while the fifth will hand you a dollar if you also spray his windshield and wipe it with a dirty rag.

The exact origin of the popular American holiday is unclear. Some historians say it grew out of a church service in West Virginia in the early 1900s. Others believe it was a marketing strategy by the late rocker Jerry Garcia to sell his ties. Whatever the case, there is universal agreement among the two Web sites I googled that the greatest promoter of Father's Day was Mrs. Bruce John Dodd of Spokane, Wash., known affectionately to her friends as "Bruce."

Mrs. Dodd got the idea for Father's Day while listening to a Mother's Day church sermon in 1909. She wanted to similarly honor her father, William Smart, a Civil War veteran and widower who raised six children. Mrs. Dodd rallied her community in support of a church service in tribute to fathers for their love, devotion and selfless commitment to barbeque grilling.

I can tell you from personal experience that launching a festive national holiday is no easy task. Imagine how much more difficult it must have been for Mrs. Dodd to generate a following in 1909, a period of such coldly restrictive social mores that Congress had banned Arbor Day celebrations as "perilously rollicking." Historical note: The ban was later overturned under the administration of President Warren "G. for Giggles" Harding.

While today we may consider Father's Day a minor holiday, let us take a moment to imagine Mrs. Dodd's brave struggle against public ridicule in her quest to heal a weary nation and give dads everywhere a day to sleep late and maybe not shave.

Excerpt from the diary of Mrs. Bruce John Dodd.

March 16, 1909: Another confrontation with that cruel Mrs. Babcocks woman. She had the audacity to call my proposed "Grand Celebratory Day in Honor of Fathers and Fatherhood" a ... oh, how did she phrase it? "A silly idea fraught with rollicking." The nerve! And right in front of Pastor Thompkins. She left me no choice but to strike back sharply. "Thank you, Mrs. Babcocks. Good day," I responded, and I meant it to sting! I must learn to control my temper if I am to gain popular support.

March 28, 1909: I am having doubts about the name of this celebration. While "Grand Celebratory Day in Honor of Fathers and Fatherhood" conveys the proper sentiment, it won't fit on the front of the greeting card I've designed. Thus, I have come up with this list of alternative holiday designations:

Paternal Respect and Cherishment Daze

Fatherhood on Ice (must be winter holiday!)

Huzzahs for Papas

Christmas II

I can barely contain the flood of ideas. Must focus.

April 2, 1909: I had hoped for greater support for "Father's Day" from my five siblings. Lucy was, of course, solicitous as always. But James and William Jr. appeared doubtful, and young Timothy was outwardly hostile. "Creating holidays is a man's work, not a woman's!" he bellowed. I was not surprised, knowing Tim's strong anti-Arbor Day sentiments.

We all argued long into the night but by dawn they were won over. Yet the question of how to honor our father remains. I had planned to lobby Congress to alter the American flag by replacing the field of stars with Father's face, but Tim insists that could take years. Lucy volunteered to bake a cake. This is her solution to everything. She once suggested baking a cake in order to resolve the Spanish-American War. Dear, naive Lucy.

"Perhaps we could each give him small gifts as tokens of our love," suggested William Jr. "If only he could spend the day enjoying his favorite sport, baseball. Someday, someone is going to develop a way to watch baseball games and many other forms of entertainment on a device right in their own homes. Gosh, maybe it'll be me and I'll make a fortune."

We all sighed at William Jr., the dreamer, and another of his crazy schemes, like his "flying machine" and his "horseless carriage" and his "Internet." Still, the idea of small gifts has merit.

Illustration by Roberta Polfus  

May 8, 1909: Another setback. I had hoped to present my idea for a gift-giving celebration at our weekly meeting of the Father's Day Society and Temperance Group at the church, but that Babcocks woman has booked the hall for her Future Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting. She then had the gall to lecture me on the benefits of proper planning. Well, I had had enough of her interference and let her know it right there in front of half the town.

"Thank you again, Mrs. Babcocks," I retorted. "And a good evening."

Oh, how the tongues must be wagging about me now, but I just don't care.

May 9, 1909: My dear husband and strongest supporter secured us an alternate meeting place conveniently located near the church in the cold cellar of the butcher shop. It is a bit musty due to the hanging sides of beef and random slop buckets brimming with animal viscera, but the price is right.

On to business! The idea of honoring fathers with small gifts was well received by the assembled and led to an intense discussion as to what the proper Father's Day gift would be. Not surprisingly, several guests favored giving sides of beef, but soon more imaginative suggestions were put forth, including farm implements, seed, livestock, millet, barbed wire, fence posts, wagon wheels and land. It is amazing how many farmers there are in this farming community.

May 17, 1909: The perfect gift? The perfect gift? What could it be? This demonic conundrum haunts me. My father is a man of many enviable qualities. He is selfless, courageous, loving, virtuous. He deserves a gift that ties together these fine qualities, but what? What ties them together? Yes, ties them. Wait a moment! Ties? Could it be that simple?

May 28, 1909: An unexpected development. The butcher shop has been closed down and, with it, our meeting hall. Apparently Mr. Baily, the butcher, was cited for 117 health code violations including three charges of Illegally Operating a Meeting and/or Assembly for the Purpose of Establishing a New Holiday. The arresting constable admitted that the tip came in anonymously. Babcocks! She will not stop us.

June 17, 1909: We are but a day away from the first Father's Day celebration and I am all atwitter with anticipation. Pastor Thompkins has written a special sermon in honor of fathers. As for our gifts, James has hand carved a lovely wagon wheel and Tim, who procured a side of beef from the arresting officer, gift wrapped it in layers of colorful muslin and has kept it hidden under his bed. William Jr. has been scarce of late as he tinkers away in the barn on his gift, a contraption that he calls a "phone, fax, copier." Lucy has baked a cake. My special "tie" is nearly complete, lacking only gold piping, an embroidered Happy Father's Day message and a few more rhinestones.

June 18, 1909: What a wonderful celebration! We took care of Father's chores so that he could sleep late. Wouldn't you know that lazy bones didn't rouse himself until nearly 5:30 a.m? Tim had cooked a beef stew which Father, complimenting him on its powerful aroma, said was too special to eat, although he enjoyed a double helping of Lucy's cake. James' wagon wheel embossed with "I Love Papa!" on the rim was a hit. Father admitted that it would certainly raise eyebrows down at the blacksmith's. A disappointed William Jr. snuck in late from the barn and offered father an envelope with a sheet of paper within that read "I.O.U. one really great gift! Sorry."

I am not certain Father appreciated my "tie." "Oh my," he said upon receiving it, then "My, my, my! Look at ... that." But he dutifully donned it when I reminded him it was time for church.

Pastor Thompkins' sermon was poignant and meaningful, reminding us of the responsibilities of fatherhood and of its rewards. The day would have been perfect but for that Babcocks woman whom we encountered upon leaving the church. Scrutinizing my father's tie, she whispered to me, "That is the ugliest thing I have ever seen!" That was the final straw. This appalling woman had to be put in her place.

"Thank you, Mrs. Babcocks. And good morning!"

You should have seen her face.

Dave Jaffe, the father of two boys, is Chicago Parent's special correspondent, with emphasis on "special," not "correspondent." Reach him at [email protected]



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