Curious Questions: Did a mining disaster lead to the invention of Father’s Day?

This weekend marks Father's Day across the world, prompting Martin Fone to take a look at the origins of this day of celebration. The tale he discovered is not what he expected....

The small town of Monongah in West Virginia has the unenviable distinction of being the site of America’s worst mining disaster. At 10.28 am on Friday, December 6, 1907, an explosion ripped through the Fairmont Coal Company’s No 6 and No 8 mines when a spark or a flame from a miner’s lamp made contact with flammable gas. The cause was never formally established.

Ventilation systems were destroyed, timber supports in the mining tunnels demolished, and despite the best efforts of townsfolk and miners from nearby mines (who led the rescue attempts) almost all those trapped underground were killed. Officially, the death toll was set at 361, although with employment practices and record keeping so lax, the number was probably higher still. Many of the victims were migrants, recently arrived in America; amongst their number 171 Italians and 94 Slavs. 250 of the dead were fathers. The youngest victim was aged just eight.

Horrifyingly, it was far from a rare event. Over 3,200 people were killed in American mines in 1907, making it the deadliest year in the industry’s history. US mining, a voracious employer of migrant labour, operated with outdated safety precautions, and used working practices regarding lighting, handling of explosives and the dangers of methane gas which had long been outlawed in British and European mines.

Something had to change. The public outcry following the sector’s annus horribilis led to the adoption of more stringent safety and working practices with the establishment of the United States Bureau of Mines in 1910. Indirectly, the Monongah disaster also led to the establishment of Father’s Day.

Grace Golden Clayton, a resident of Fairmont still grief-stricken after her beloved father’s death in 1896, was moved by the thought of the thousand children robbed of their fathers by the explosion. She lobbied her local pastor, the Reverend Robert Thomas Webb, to hold a special service at the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South to celebrate fatherhood and what fathers do for their children. Webb held the service on Sunday July 5, 1908, the nearest Sunday to the anniversary of the death of Clayton’s father.

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Parishioners gave out flowers, red roses to honour a living father and white in memory of a deceased father. They remain the official flower of Father’s Day, although most fathers nowadays would look askance if presented with a bouquet of red roses. Although a success, the service was never repeated, perhaps because it was too directly associated with the mining disaster and the date chosen was too close to one of America’s most established national events, Independence Day. However, the germ of an idea had been planted, the import of which Sonora Smart Dodd was quick to recognise.

When Sonora was sixteen, her mother, Ellen, died after giving birth to her sixth child, leaving her father William — a farmer and Civil War veteran — to raise the young family single-handed. Sonora was full of admiration for the way her father had risen to the daunting challenge and his devotion to his young family. Her home town of Spokane, Washington, was an early adopter of Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day and, while listening to a sermon at the Central Methodist Episcopal Church extolling the virtues of motherhood, she wondered why fathers had been left out. They too deserved their moment in the limelight.

Enthused by the idea, Sonora began to campaign for a day to be allocated for the celebration of fatherhood, enlisting the support of local groups such as the YMCA and the Ministerial Association of Spokane. While she wanted June 5th, the date of her father’s birthday, as the date for Father’s Day, the day Spokane’s YMCA settled on for the inaugural celebration in 1910 was the third Sunday of June, the 19th. Several other towns and cities followed Sonora’s and Spokane’s lead.

The task of gaining national — never mind international — recognition for Father’s Day proved anything but straightforward. Whereas Mother’s Day was embraced with enthusiasm, the prevailing view was that men were not as sentimental as women and would be less receptive to gifts and overt expressions of gratitude and affection. Others, more perceptively, saw that a day reserved for fathers would only provide another excuse to feed the maws of rampant commercialism.

Despite Presidents Woodrow Wilson, in 1916, and Calvin Coolidge, in 1924, coming out strongly in favour of Father’s Day, Congress blocked any attempt to make it a national holiday. Pressure for formal recognition built up after the Second World War. As Senator Margaret Smith wrote to Congress in 1957, ‘either we honour both our parents, mother and father, or let us desist from honouring either one. But to single out just one of our two parents and omit the other is the most grievous insult imaginable.’

Congress finally bowed to pressure, passing passed a joint resolution in 1970 authorising the President to designate the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day, which urged the public to observe the day with ‘appropriate ceremonies’ and ‘to offer public and private expressions …to the abiding love and gratitude which they bear for their fathers’. President Nixon signed it into law in 1972.

Britain only adopted Father’s Day in earnest after the Second World War. Unlike Mother’s Day — which, cuckoo-like, usurped the longstanding religious celebration of Mothering Sunday — there was no obvious corresponding date in the religious calendar to which to allocate it. In Catholic tradition there had been since the Middle Ages the Feast Day of St Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary, which is celebrated on March 19th. Joseph’s status as history’s most famous stepfather meant that the day was also used as a day to celebrate fatherhood — and it still is in Spain, Italy, and Portugal. But the reduction in Saints’ days following the Reformation put paid to its observation here.

It took the irresistible Americanisation of British culture after the Second World War and the welcome prospect of a mid-year fillip to the retail sector’s revenues to cement Father’s Day in the British calendar. Following America’s lead, the third Sunday of June was adopted as Father’s Day and its observance has gone from strength to strength. Last year Britons spent an estimated £951 million in celebrating it.

An imaginative and opportunistic advertising campaign ensured that Father’s Day has also now been recognised in France. On the third Sunday of June in 1949, cigarette lighter manufacturer Flaminaire launched an advertising campaign with the strap line ‘our fathers told us, for Father’s Day, they all want a Flaminaire’. Within three years an official decree recognised the date as Father’s Day, showing the power of an effective marketing campaign.

There is great variation in the dates used across the world. ‘Ba’ is the Chinese word for eight and ‘ba-ba’ the colloquial term for father, making the Taiwanese choice of the eighth day of the eighth month — August 8th— as Father’s Day highly appropriate. In Australia and New Zealand, it is held on the first Sunday of September, while in Thailand December 5th, the birthday of King Bhumibol, is recognised as Father’s Day. In Germany, it coincides with Ascension Day.

But wherever, however and whenever you choose to celebrate Father’s Day, spare a thought for the mining disaster that gave birth to the idea.