“Father’s Day is like Mother’s Day,” the author Gerald F. Lieberman famously quipped, “except the gift is cheaper.”
But there’s another difference, too: from the start, Father’s Day has focused almost completely on the gift. And that tells you something important about gender and parenthood in modern America, where Dad is still seen as the economic provider. So on Father’s Day, we provide for him.
That’s what Sonora Dodd envisioned when she founded the holiday in 1910 to honor her own father, a Civil War veteran who raised her and five siblings after their mother died. To publicize the new endeavor, Dodd encouraged merchants in her native Spokane, Washington to advertise presents for the man of the household.
She also hoped to imitate the economic juggernaut of Mother’s Day, which had been started two years earlier in Philadelphia by West Virginia teacher and activist Anna M. Jarvis. But whereas Jarvis resented the commercialization of Mother’s Day, condemning candymakers and other businesses for capitalizing on “her” holiday, Dodd happily embraced commerce as the engine of Father’s Day. “After all,” Dodd wrote, “why should the greatest giver of gifts not be on the receiving end at least once a year?”
And that’s been the main theme of Father’s Day ever since. In Spokane, one shopkeeper created what might have been the first Father’s Day poster: a picture of George Washington and a reminder to “Remember Father.” Within a few short years, retail chains were running nationwide sales campaigns with similar messages.
There were some bumps at the beginning, of course. In 1925, tobacco companies launched a campaign commemorating Father’s Day on the second Sunday of June. But that raised the ire of patriotic groups like the American Legion—not because they objected to tobacco, but because Flag Day fell on the same date. The companies apologized and resolved to observe Father’s Day on the third Sunday of the month, where it has remained ever since.
In 1936, newspapers noted that tobacconists, clothiers and sporting goods dealers “enjoyed a cheery Sunday” on Father’s Day. Still, only one of six fathers received gifts. So retailers redoubled their efforts to make the Father’s Day into “a second Christmas,” as sales agents called it.
By 1938, they proclaimed victory. “Upon the fathers of America there shower today neckties, shirts, socks, pipes, tobacco, golf clubs and other gifts,” a newspaper reported. “Father’s Day . . . . has finally become established.”
By purchasing goods on Father’s Day, businesses argued, consumers strengthened the Depression-era economy and prevented a slide into the fascist revolutions that had enveloped Europe. And when the United States took up arms against fascism in 1941, merchants were quick to link Father’s Day to the World War II effort. The national marketing slogan for the holiday in 1942 told the whole story: “Father—the Defender of the Home.”
Nevertheless, America was slow to accept Father’s Day in an official capacity. Congress voted to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1913, just five years after it started. But Father’s Day had to wait 51 years—until 1971—to receive a similar designation.
Some Americans feared that Father’s Day would open the country to an endless string of holidays on behalf of siblings, grandparents, and so on. Others worried that it would erode the distinctive status of Mother’s Day, which had its roots in the women’s suffrage movement. Liberals continued to revere it as a feminist holiday, while conservatives fixed on it to remind the country that women should remain in the home.
But why do we celebrate Father’s Day? And why do nearly half of the people who mark the holiday give clothes to their dads? We seem to be thanking fathers for putting clothes on our own backs, exactly as Sonora Dodd urged a century ago. J ust look at our ad campaigns, which still show dads going off to work in their brand new duds.
Never mind that fathers now spend 17 hours a week on housework and child care — nearly three times what they did forty years ago — or that 40 percent of households with children include mothers who are either the primary or sole source of income for their families.
Eventually, I hope, we’ll use this holiday to think about fathers less as breadwinners and more as guides, mentors, and role models: in short, as parents. I had a great role model in my own dad, who always put his family before work and everything else.
So Happy Father’s Day, Dad, with appreciation and love. A gift will follow.