How Father’s Day Changed America


In the late 1800’s, a Civil War veteran lost his wife, and the mother of his children. The widowed father-of-six had no choice but to care for all his kids and family – aged 16 to less than one-years-old – on his own. The veteran’s devotion inspired his daughter, Sonora Louise Smart Dodd had a plan to create a holiday event to honor her dad and dedicated dads everywhere.

Dodd got the idea after hearing a sermon about Mother’s Day, and wondering why there wasn’t a Father’s Day. She met with groups in Spokane, Washington, and with their help the city celebrated its first Father’s Day on June 19, 1910.

News of the “unique” holiday plan spread quickly, but many were hesitant to make it official. Some even ridiculed the idea because of the common perception that a father’s place was out of the household, earning money, while the mother cared for the children – an idea that was already beginning to change.

Changing families; changing fatherhood. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, middle-class Americans began reevaluating what it meant to be a good father. Books on raising children from 1900 to 1920 encouraged dads to “take an active role in the everyday decisions of child management.” They wanted fathers to focus less on being breadwinners and the authoritative voice of the household (aka the one who dishes out spankings), and instead “forging strong personal relationships with their children’ and family. Growing up without a mother, these are likely the sort of relationships Dodd and her siblings developed with their father.

The relative absence of women in the household – or more accurately, a redefinition of their goals outside it – can also be linked to the evolving idea of fatherhood. Between 1870 and 1920 the nation’s divorce rate greatly increased and many women were delaying marriage in favor of education or a career plan. Women needed their husbands to take on more child-raising duties, but it soon became clear that fathers were not just stand-ins for mom – they were an important part of their children’s development.

Will Fathers Never Learn?

In the April 1919, in an edition of Good Housekeeping, a male writer tells the story of his misguided childhood, and how his father’s absence led him down the wrong path.

The first-person article, which is both an interesting and amusing peak into the mind of an early-twentieth century man, argues a boy needs a hero. If a boy can’t find that in his father, he may end up idolizing a less virtuous man. The author, who doesn’t mention daughters in his piece, believes a strong father-son relationship is key.

“Had my father ever taken an hour’s time to converse with me seriously, when I was about ten years old, he would have discovered how he was failing me. He would have learned things regarding my ideals that would have horrified him.”

The author doesn’t blame his father, and in fact calls him a “victim” to the same mistake fathers had been making for generations. But the author called for rapid change.

“There is more to fatherhood than providing a home and clothes and meals. If you have a son, it is pretty near a certainty that he needs a father. And it is your business in life to supply that need.”

Father’s Day: Celebrating a movement.

As Americans changed their view of fatherhood within a family, they embraced the holiday designed to celebrate dads. By the mid-1920s, Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge had supported the increasingly popular celebration. But it wasn’t until 1972 that President Richard Nixon made Father’s Day a permanent national holiday.

Now the holiday is celebrated around the world in many a family, usually on the third Sunday in June. In the United States, kids usually honor dad with ties and homemade cards, thanking him for being their hero. If only they knew that only 100 years ago, that special relationship was hard to find.

Use your allcal family calendar to plan a special day for your dad this Father’s Day. Take him to dinner, for a round of golf, or check out allcal’s public Father’s Day calendar for awesome events and near you.

And for all you father’s out there, we leave you with this: “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.” — Clarence Budington Kelland

You go dads!

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