The Man Who Made Father’s Day a Cash Cow

Celebrating Father’s Day, 2017 feels about as festive as celebrating May Day while Communism collapsed. America’s iconic father Bill Cosby is being tried for rape. The White House is overrun by a tantrum-prone, orange-haired, man-child. And the most popular modifier before the word “dad” is “deadbeat.” We’ve betrayed the Hallmark Card sentiments that launched this holiday 117 years ago.

Or have we? The constructively contrarian historian says: take heart. Today is not as bad as we fear; yesterday wasn’t as good as we imagine. The story of the real Founding Father of Father’s Day makes Father’s Day look like Donald Trump’s campaign appeal: with grand homages to family, faith, and flag obscuring a gilded greediness at heart.

The Disney version of Father’s Day’s founding features Spokane, Washington as the birthplace and Sonora Louise Smart Dodd as the “Mother of Father’s Day.” Born in Arkansas in 1882, raised on a farm in Washington since she was 7, Sonora at 16-years-old lost her mother Ellen. Her father, William Jackson Smart raised her and her five younger brothers. Eleven years later, Dodd, now married and a mom, heard a Mother’s Day sermon celebrating Anna Jarvis, the motherless mother of Mother’s Day who never became a mother – and spent her life fighting the commercialization of the holiday she created. Inspired by Jarvis’s daughterly devotion, oblivious to her ultimate frustration, Dodd proposed honoring dads too.

The first Father’s Day Sermon, delivered in Spokane on June 19, 1910, earned mayoral and gubernatorial endorsements. The declarations would pile up until 1972, when Father’s Day finally become a formal national holiday.

Dodd pushed her beloved holiday for decades until her death in 1978 at 96.  She embodied Father’s Day at its most Victorian and sentimental, reflecting the “separate spheres” which launched men and women into different orbits in the homes they shared. Her first petition insisted the holiday would highlight “the father’s place in the home; the training of children; the safeguarding of the marriage tie; and the protection of womanhood and childhood.”

Along the way Dodd earned a silver bowl in 1971 and the title the “Mother of Father’s Day” from the National Father’s Day Committee. But that strategic act of recognition was overly generous. Most historians agree that without that committee – and its entrepreneurial, seductive, ambitious leader – the New York adman Alvin Austin – Father’s Day would be marginalized, like Run It Up The Flagpole and See if Anybody Salutes Day (January 2), Thesaurus Day (January 18), or Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (last Monday in January).

Conceived in nineteenth-century romanticism, Father’s Day flourished amid twentieth century patriotic consumerism.  Modern America’s missionaries – admen — boosted this day celebrating American power, optimism, capitalism and vulgarity. The critical turning point occurred in 1938. The Associated Men’s Wear Retailers transformed its growing Father’s Day Committee into the National Council for the Formation of Father’s Day. Alvin Austin, the trade group’s 44-year-old Mad Man, wasn’t just a necktie-and-Homburg pusher but an all-American, flamboyant, creative, and shameless carny-booster.

In those more innocent days, few bothered obscuring the Council’s crass commercialism. In August, 1947, The New York Times reported a Father’s Day Council survey discovering an 18 percent jump in “volume in men’s wear and department stores” in 1946 – a leap of 609 percent in 9 years. Two years later, recruiting 50,000 retailers to donate $150,000, Austin fused the Cold War’s my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism with consumerist America’s growing I-shop-therefore-I-am sensibility.  His slogan bridged Sonora Dodd’s mawkishness with his muscular materialism: “Remember Father, Molder of Our Children’s Future – For a Safe World Tomorrow Teach Democracy Today.” And this cross between Don Draper, PT Barnum, Dale Carnegie, and Cecile B. de Mille admitted: “Some think that, like Christmas, Father’s Day is here to stay and needs no organized effort. That is a fatal mistake. If the central bureau and organization promotion were discontinued Father’s Day would die a miserable death.”

This mid-century bourgeois warrior accepted the Puritan notion that the Lord rewarded good works with great riches. In 1959, Austin proclaimed: “All of us in the business of publicity can feel mighty good that an idea that has beauty, nobility, purpose, and public service, can also advance the health of the American economy.” Mixing cynicism and idealism, translating our sentiments about our dads into profits for his clients, Austin consecrated Father’s Day – which he wanted to be America’s second biggest shopping day after Christmas, with a Ten Commandments. Addressing every Father-who-knows-best, the list celebrated: “Your sense of brotherhood … encouragement …. fairness …. leadership in community affairs …. example… self-reliance ….  companionship… foresight… teaching,” which “imparts a desire to love, honor and obey his country’s law and your guidance” which “prepares” children “for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship in a free society.”

Not everyone succumbed. “The hucksters are selling the cuff-links and the golf balls, the ties and the sox this year with an elaborate campaign backed up by a pious invention of their own called ‘A Father’s Ten Commandments for Good Citizenship,” critics in  Maryland’s Cumberland Evening Times  scoffed. “The commandments are so full of lofty moral sentiments that, for a split second, the clank of the cash register is scarcely audible.”

Indeed, the silence didn’t last. Especially after these Ad-Men pushed gag-gifts to help American men hide their emotions behind veils of humor, Americans stampeded to the store every June, just as Austin and his Men’s Wear Retailers planned. Although Mother’s Day still reigns with $21.4 billion in sales, Father’s Day’s $14.3 billion sales frenzy is quite respectable.

Alas, the spending spree Austin launched continues, even as paternal pride and popularity waned (and not, because of the kind of Dad-Jokes that would respond to the sentence by saying “It didn’t wane, it wasn’t even cwoudy). The Sixties humanized but trivialized American fathers. We degenerated from the Dad who can do no wrong to the Doofus Dad who could do no right, from the Dad who defends hearth and home to Homer Simpson, from the Dead-On Dad of the fifties to the Deadbeat Dad of today.

This shift reflects our new Republic of Nothing’s epidemic cynicism, alienation, and family breakdown. But the sobering shifts and clinging cash registers only tell part of the story. This Father’s Day – like every day – millions of American males will access our sweeter side, our lighter side, our endearing side. In gestures large and small, we will bond with our children, participating in that most magical of relationships, that grandest, rollicking adventure called parenthood.

For Further Reading

Ralph LaRossa The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History (1997).

Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays (1997).