Father’s Day: From Controversy to Federal Holiday

Father and daughter walking on the beach
As Americans celebrate Father’s Day with gifts, cookouts, and anything else to help make Dad’s life easier, it may come as a surprise that this holiday has not been around very long. In fact, it was not a recognized federal holiday until 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed the proclamation that the third Sunday of June would be known nationwide as Father’s Day.

The road from controversy to acceptance of this special day was not easy. The first event in the United States to honor fathers was a sermon in a West Virginia church given on Sunday, July 5, 1908. This was in memory of 362 men who had lost their lives in the explosions that took place in the Fairmont Coal Company mines in Monongah. This was not meant to be an annual holiday but rather a one-time memorial tribute.

That was the same year Mother’s Day became a commercial holiday. What began following the Civil War as “Mother’s Work Days,” having mothers of Union and Confederate soldiers provide food, clothing, and medicine to the wounded, became a day to honor all mothers. After the John Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia used its auditorium and sponsored a dedication service to mothers, the retail potential and popularity escalated. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially approved Mother’s Day as the second Sunday in May to honor “that tender, gentle army, the mothers of America.”

Some children have their father as the primary or only parent. That was the case for Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington. She and her five siblings were raised by their father, a widower. She wanted a holiday similar to Mother’s Day for fathers. She went to local churches, businesses, and government officials with her idea. Washington state celebrated it’s first statewide Father’s Day on July 19, 1910.

The holiday was spreading, although slowly, because of the sentimentality and commercialism associated with it. President Wilson used Father’s Day in 1916 to raise a flag in Spokane by using telegraph signals from Washington, D.C. When Calvin Coolidge was president, he encouraged all state governments to observe Father’s Day.

Other groups during the 1920s and 30s wanted to get rid of both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and replace them with Parents’ Day. They would meet in New York’s Central Park┬áto express their support for both parents, but the Depression put a stop to that. Father’s Day became a “Christmas” for men, advertising items that would appeal to men ranging from socks to golf clubs. Father’s Day was then used as a way to honor American troops during World War II. By the end of the war, it was celebrated nationally, but was not yet a federal holiday.

Richard Nixon signed the proclamation in 1972 as part of his re-election campaign. President Barack Obama gives annual Father’s Day messages about the role of a father in the life of a child. Americans spend over $1 billion every year on Father’s Day gifts to honor not only biological fathers, but also grandfathers, stepfathers, foster fathers, and father-like role models.

By Cynthia Collins


Father’s Day History

Library of Congress

Father’s Day Presidential Proclamation

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