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History of Father's Day

The third Sunday in June 2010 marks the centennial celebration of Father’s Day in the United States. Although several theories exist regarding the origins of the Father’s Day celebrations around the world, the traditional story for our own commemoration begins with Sonora Louise Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington.

One Sunday in 1909, during a Mother’s Day sermon at the Central Methodist Episcopal Church she attended, Mrs. Dodd found herself thinking about her father, William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran who had raised her and her five siblings since her mother had died from childbirth when Sonora was sixteen years old. The twenty-seven-year-old Sonora worked for over a year, with the help of the Spokane Ministerial Association and the local YMCA, to arrange a tribute for her father—and others—on June 19, 1910, choosing June because it was the month of her father’s birth.

The original tribute consisted of celebrants wearing roses to church services: a red rose to honor a living father and a white one to honor the deceased. Dodd herself also commemorated her own father by delivering gifts to fathers who were disabled and homebound. She continued for many years to solicit support for her goal of making the celebration a legal holiday, similar to Mother’s Day.

Surprisingly, Mrs. Dodd’s proposition at first met with more humor and derision than support. The target of satire and parody in the local paper, the observance was viewed by many as a joke. But by 1916, the idea had become so popular that President Woodrow Wilson proposed to make it an official holiday, but Congress resisted, on the grounds that it would be commercialized. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge continued to offer presidential support for the cause that would “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”

Yet Congress continued to debate the issue for decades, at times becoming even rancorous in the process. In 1957, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, from Maine, asserted, “Either we honor both our parents, mother and father, or let us desist from honoring either one. But to single out just one of our two parents and omit the other is the most grievous insult imaginable.”

Finally in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the third Sunday in June to be Father’s Day, but it wasn’t until 1972 that President Richard Nixon signed the public law that made the celebration a legal holiday.

Clearly, the objections of Congress based on fears of commercialization were well-founded. As early as the 1930s, the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers, along with several other trade groups, formed the National Council for the Promotion of Father’s Day, a committee designed to legitimize the holiday and boost sales related to it. In fact, Sonora Dodd herself encouraged commercialization as a means of popularizing the holiday. Today, Father’s Day is second only to Christmas as the holiday when most gifts are purchased for men.

In 1974, four years before her death at age 96, Sonora Dodd was honored at the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington, for her contribution to the existence of Father’s Day.

About Rhonda Galloway

Dr. Rhonda Galloway teaches English at Bob Jones University and writes for BJU Press during her summer break.She has been a featured speaker at both state and national homeschool conferences.

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