The history of Father's Day

BY Gill Hasson

14th Jun 2023 Life

The history of Father's Day

With Father’s Day just around the corner, we look back at the surprising history of the celebratory day that started in the US in the early 20th century with two daughters on a mission

Father’s Day, which in the UK is celebrated on the third Sunday of every June, came about as a result of the day being established and celebrated in the US.

Tragic origins of Father’s Day

Fiarmont, Virginia mining crew around 1900The mining disaster in Fairmont, Virginia in 1907 led to the first, one-off Father's Day

The first recorded occasion of a day to acknowledge the role of fathers happened in 1908, when a Methodist church in Fairmont, West Virginia held a service to honour the 362 men killed seven months earlier on December 6, 1907, when two mines of the Fairmont Coal Company exploded. It was the worst coal mining disaster in American history and left 1,000 children without a father.

A local woman, 34-year-old church organist Grace Golden Clayton, suggested to the pastor of the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church in Fairmont that a service be held in honour of the 362 men, with a special tribute for the 250 fathers who had died providing for their families.

In a 1979 interview with The Fairmont Times, Grace explained that it was the loss of lives that led her to acknowledge just how important and loved most fathers are.

"Grace Golden Clayton suggested a service for the miners, with a special tribute for the 250 fathers who died providing for their families"

"All those lonely children and the heartbroken wives and mothers, made orphans and widows in a matter of a few minutes. Oh, how sad and frightening to have no father, no husband, to turn to at such a sad time.”

The service was held on July 5, 1908; a date which Grace herself chose since it was the Sunday closest to her own father's birthday. It was though, a one-off event, and did not gain national attention.

Sonora Smart Dodd’s mission                     

Sonora Smart DoddSonora Smart Dodd is considered by many as the creator of Father's Day. Credit: Visit Spokane

However, the following year, in Spokane, Washington, more than 2,000 miles away on the other side of the US, a woman called Sonora Smart Dodd had begun making it her mission to establish a national Father’s Day.

Sonora’s father, William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran, raised Sonora and her five siblings alone after their mother died in childbirth.

"William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran, raised Sonora and her five siblings alone after their mother died in childbirth"

Inspired by the fact that Mother’s Day was increasingly being celebrated in churches and homes across the country, Sonora successfully petitioned her local church leaders and community to set aside a day to acknowledge all fathers.

She had wanted Father’s Day to be on June 5, as it was her own father's birthday, but it didn’t give enough time for the pastors of the Spokane Ministerial Alliance to prepare their sermons. So, the celebration was deferred to June 19—the third Sunday of June.

Wane of interest despite presidential backing

In the following years, churches in other parts of the US took up the idea of honouring fathers and delivering sermons on the subject of fatherhood on the third Sunday of June.

Both President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 were keen to secure official recognition of Father's Day but Congress resisted and within a few years, interest waned. Sonora went off to art college in Chicago and had no time to continue promoting the occasion. But on her return to Spokane, she once again took up the cause.

Spread and official recognition

Father and son at the barbecueDespite the struggle to establish it, Father's Day is now a special time for many families. Credit: bernardbodo

By 1938 Sonara had the support of the Father’s Day Council. The Council, founded by the New York Associated Men's Wear Retailers, saw an opportunity to benefit from the occasion by promoting their range of potential Father’s Day gifts in their shops.

Then, in 1942 when the US had become fully engaged in the Second World War, retailers saw that acknowledging the men fighting for their country was a further opportunity to promote Father’s Day and the occasion gained widespread popular support. By the time the war was over, Father’s Day was a national institution.

In 1956, the United States Congress finally agreed to recognise Father's Day, passing a joint resolution to that end. Still, it took another decade until President Lyndon Johnson officially proclaimed the third Sunday in June to be a national holiday, and another six years (in 1972) for President Nixon to sign it into law so that Father’s Day became a permanent annual holiday. Happily, Sonora herself lived long enough to see it happen, living to the age of 96, in 1978.

Father's Day today around the world

Father and young daughter hugging as she holds a Father's Day card and smilesFather's Day is now celebrated in over 70 countries on the third Sunday in June. Credit: Prostock-Studio

By the time Nixon had legally established the occasion, the UK was already following the US in celebrating Father’s Day on the third Sunday of June and now, Father's Day is celebrated around the world, with over 70 countries celebrating fathers on this same day. 

"By the time it was legally established in the US, the UK was already also celebrating Father’s Day on the third Sunday of June"

In Europe, the Catholic countries of Spain, Italy and Portugal celebrate Father’s Day on Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19), as they have done since the Middle Ages. In Germany, Father's Day is celebrated on the same date as Ascension Day (the 40th day after Easter Sunday). Other religions maintain their own traditions of honouring fatherhood. Sikhs, for example, celebrate Father's Day on December 29, birthday of the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh.

But whichever day and whoever the father figure in your life, as the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller said, “It’s not flesh and blood but the heart that makes us fathers and sons.” (And I might add, fathers and daughters!)

Banner credit: Visit Spokane

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