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The Long and Halting History of Father’s Day

A vintage photo of a father in a suit spraying water from a hose over a toddler holding an umbrella.
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Come June 21, people across the country will be celebrating Father’s Day. Although the holiday became official just a few decades ago, the story of its origin dates back to the early 1900s. Let’s take a brief look at how this special day came to be. 

It was 1907 when a deadly explosion at the Fairmont Coal Company mine in Mononhag, Virginia, took the lives of hundreds of workers. In an effort to celebrate all the fathers who fell victim to the accident, Grace Golden Clayton decided to hold a memorial service in their honor the following year, on July 5, 1908.

Although the participants didn’t realize it at the time, that’s the first time Father’s Day was observed in the U.S. The event was supposed to be a one-time deal, involving only the families of the victims. It wasn’t promoted outside the area, or even widely acknowledged at the time.

At the time, Anna Jarvis was already campaigning to establish Mother’s Day as a national holiday, and it was slowly gaining popularity across the country. It was at her sermon in 1909 that a young Sonora Louise Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, got the idea to petition for an official celebration of Father’s Day. Part of the inspiration behind that decision was her own father. After her mother died delivering the youngest of her five brothers, her father was left to raise all six children alone. 

Although she struggled to get the full support of the public, she still managed to convince local churches and the YMCA to hold the celebrations on a specific Sunday every June. Her initial proposition was June 5, her father’s birthday. However, given that was too close to Mother’s Day, it was decided to set the third Sunday of June as the official date.

So, on June 19, 1910, Washington observed the country’s first statewide Father’s Day celebration. Roses were designated as the official flower—red for fathers who were still alive, and white for those who had passed. 

Yet, despite this initial victory, Dodd encountered many obstacles in her decades-long mission to get Father’s Day recognized as a federal holiday. For years, the nation saw a widespread movement against both Mother’s and Father’s Day in favor of a conjoined Parent’s Day celebration.

The idea failed to catch on, though. Ironically, however, many men were still opposed to celebrating Father’s Day. Some saw it as just another pointless, commercial holiday, while others saw it as emasculating. 

We observe Father’s Day every year thanks to Dodd’s resilience. After a 60-year fight, her campaign finally came to an end when President Nixon signed the national holiday into law in 1972. 

This special day is observed in many countries, although not all on the same day. Most, including the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., celebrate Father’s Day the third Sunday in June.

Traditionally Catholic nations, such as Italy, Spain, and most of South America, celebrate it on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. In Australia and Fiji, it’s celebrated the first Sunday in September. In Taiwan, though, Father’s Day is celebrated August 8, as the word for “eight” in Mandarin sounds similar to the word for “papa.” 

If you’re searching for a last-minute Father’s Day gift, why not spend some time working on a project together? Alternatively, you might want to surprise him with a subscription box or a nice experience he’ll always remember.

It’s not about how much you spend; it’s about spending quality time with that special person you call dad. 

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »

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