Celebrating the mothers of 1919 with carnations, songs, and guilt

Mother’s Day 1919 was dedicated to the mothers whose sons fought for freedom. President Wilson decreed that flags be flown at all government buildings (wasn’t this done normally back then?) and requested that people fly the flag at their homes “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of the country.”  The carnation was the flower of the day, the New York Times said–“white carnations for a mother dead, and pink ones for those who are still the center of the home.”

New York Times headline, To Honor Mothers Today - President Orders Flag Flown...

New York Times, May 11, 1919

President Wilson called on America’s soldiers to write to their mothers. The order made its way down the line in messages from Secretary of War Newton Baker

1919 telegram instructing soldiers to write to their mothers on Mother's Day

and up-and-coming Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt.

Telegram from Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt about Mother's Day 1919

National Archives (Identifier 6283187)

If penning a few sentences to Mom was just too hard, maybe because you were busy saying good-bye to your little French mother,*

Norman Rockwell drawing of soldier saying goodbye to French family, Life magazine, 1919

Norman Rockwell, Life magazine, March 13, 1919

or because you didn’t know how to read and write,** you could just copy off of this handy-dandy flyer. I wonder how many mothers scratched their heads and asked, “Who’s Timmy?”

Flier from Red Cross et all. with suggested language for soldiers' Mother's Day postcards.

Red Cross et al., 1919

I was going to suggest that we celebrate the mothers of 1919 with this song,

but luckily I listened to the words first. It starts out as you’d expect: the singer misses Mammy down south, is feeling blue, kisses her picture every night, etc. Then comes this spoken verse:

When I was bad and started crying
Remember how you laid me across your lap?
Mammy, ain’t no use denying
You sure swung a wicked strap.

The song ends with the singer saying that she’s been too busy to write, and that

There’s only just one thing keeping me
From being with you all down there.

If you’re anxious to see your honey-lamb, Mammy,
Send me up my fare.


Sheet music cover for Mammy o' Mine

A little research confirmed that, in its original version, “Mammy o’ Mine” doesn’t devolve into a joke. It’s just about missing Mammy. The song was written by 20-year-old African-American composer Maceo Pinkard, and it was his first big hit.*** Many more were to come, including “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Pincard later helped Duke Ellington break into show business, introducing him to important Tin Pan Alley figures (including his future manager), and arranging his first recording session.

Pincard and his song deserves a more respectful rendition. So do the moms of 1919, and the moms of today. Let’s celebrate them, instead, with this version by Harry Yerkes, an early proponent of jazz and blues.

Happy Mother’s Day!

*Here’s another Rockwell mom cover, from April. It doesn’t have a title as far as I know, so I’m calling it “Back off, Mom!” (Update 6/10/2019: It’s called “Boy Musician.” I like my title better.)

Norman Rockwell American magazine cover, May 1919, boy playing flute, pained mother behind

More about little French mothers here.

**Which is quite possible. There were a number of tests to judge soldiers’ literacy, such as the Devens Literacy Test, which asked Dada-esque questions like “Is a guitar a kind of disease?” and “Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?” You can take it yourself here.

***The melody, that is. The words were written by prolific Tin Pan Alley lyricist William Tracey, who would go on to collaborate with Pincard on a number of other songs.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating the mothers of 1919 with carnations, songs, and guilt

  1. Frank Hudson

    Why yes. as a sufferer I know guitar is a disease! And the only known cure is….
    More guitars!

    Interesting that the literacy test is true/false. As a math teacher once demonstrated by giving us students a pop quiz “This test is true false. Please number your answer sheets from 1 to 50. And begin.”

    “But teacher, what are the questions?”

    “There aren’t any. Just answer”

    He did have a set of “correct” answers. I think someone in the classroom got around 80 percent, and of course just random guesses would par at 25 out of 50 and 50%. The scoring on this literacy test has subtract wrong answers from right answers to reduce the per chance 22 out of 44 par score (over a large sample that would tend to zero out the scores of folks who just answered randomly) but the random distribution even in small lots would say that some test takers would score primary literacy (or even higher) by making pretty patterns in the answer row.

    Cultural exclusivity can be assumed for the test creators, but math was math even in 1918. I assume the test wasn’t used to qualify anyone, but to gather some baseline data.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My Year in 1918 Post author

      I love the questionless pop quiz! It’s a great way to teach kids about basic statistical concepts. On a similar but more pedagogically dubious note, my 7th grade English teacher’s husband came in one day and tested us to see if we were psychic. We had to guess what letter he was thinking of, etc. (It was the early ’70s.) Of course, some kids scored in the “psychic” range, like your classmate who got an 80.

      I think you’re right that the test was mostly to get baseline data. Intelligence tests were all the rage and suddenly here was a population of people you could force to take them. I haven’t written much about military intelligence tests because they weren’t accessible to the average 1918 reader, but I will be writing about an intelligence test I found in a 1919 magazine.



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