Made by Mom: A Mother’s Day tribute in six objects

Children’s helmet decorated with frog, dinosaur, star, and superhero stickers, as well as messages like “Cool Dude!” and “Henry!”

I get the same question around this time every year: Is it Mothers’ Day or Mother’s Day?

I'm an editor, so getting wrapped into these debates is kind of a professional hazard. It’s Mother’s Day, and it has been since President Woodrow Wilson declared it so in 1914. All major style guides and dictionaries agree (which is really saying something, because they don’t always!). And yet each year, I meet with resistance when I make the correction. Is this not a day for all mothers to celebrate, and as such should we not use the plural possessive?

Want the guidance straight from the holiday’s founder, Anna Jarvis? “I wanted the possessive singular used,” she told Children, The Magazine for Parents in 1927, and she was quite serious about it. (For more on Jarvis and her challenges in creating and shaping the holiday, check out Katharine Lane Antolini’s Memorializing Motherhood.)

Indeed, there is something quite singular—forgive the pun—about the relationship between mother and child. Many objects in our collections share stories of maternal bonds. But I find myself most moved by the handmade ones, a mother’s care stitched or glued or knit into objects across time and topic. Here are just a few:

Entertaining Endearments

Patsy Cline's performance outfit
Patsy Cline's performance outfit, 1950s (2004.0008.02

“Mother’s Day is not for the famous,” Jarvis once wrote. “It is just for tributes and to glorify your humble mother and mine.” You’ve probably never heard of Hilda Hensley and Nancy Flagg, but their handiwork is part of our collections because of the way they supported their famous offspring.

Hilda Hensley made this rhinestone-bedazzled pink suit for Patsy Cline (decades before Tina Knowles designed for Beyoncé, while we’re on the topic of country songstresses). She embroidered the names of her daughter’s hits on each of the applique records that adorn the suit. Ours is one of many that Hensley made for Cline during the Opry star’s celebrated but tragically short career. (Check out this video for more on the suit and on Cline.)

Mr. Rogers’ cardigan
Mr. Rogers’ cardigan, around 1980 (1984.0219.01)

Nancy Flagg’s fashions welcomed millions of television viewers to the neighborhood when worn by her son, Fred Rogers, on the public television hit Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. At the start of each episode, nearly 900 in all, Rogers would swap a blazer for one of the many cozy cardigans in his closet, each knit by his mother.

Blanketed in Love

Geneva Jackson Warrenton's pieced quilt
Geneva Jackson Warrenton's pieced quilt, 1940s (2018.0126.16)

Geneva Ivey Jackson stitched this quilt in Warren County, Georgia, where she lived all of her 103 years. She raised eight children during the Great Depression as a Black mother in the segregated South. “Me and my husband, we didn’t have a dime,” she told the Spelman Independent Scholars Oral History Project. The front of the quilt combines colorful patches of fabric and thread; the back is made from stitched-together animal feed sacks, inscribed with the phrase “I might not be able to give them much, but I swore they wouldn't be cold.”

Blanket with U.S. flag design
Blanket, early 1900s (AF.30625)

This hand-woven blanket was likely made not to keep a body warm in cold weather, but to cover it for burial. The story of the blanket comes to us from a Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner when the Smithsonian acquired the blanket, who wrote that it was made by a mother in a Diné (Navajo) community in New Mexico. When her son left to fight in World War I, she was sure he wouldn’t survive, so she made this blanket to be placed upon his body should he die in battle. This story has a happy ending, though: he did come home, and the blanket was later auctioned to raise nearly $1,500 for the Red Cross.

Bonnets for Baby

Peter Lee's baby bonnet
Peter Lee's baby bonnet, 1919 (1992.0620.07)

Baby bonnets are undeniably adorable, but for some their purpose is more than aesthetic. Chinese mothers once dressed their little ones in hats made to look like animals, such as tigers or lions, because tradition held that the disguise would help the susceptible child avoid detection by evil spirits. When Lee Ng Shee, a Chinese immigrant in Manhattan, made this hat for her son in 1919, she added fur in two tufts atop the silk cap to give the toddler a more canine countenance.

When Henry Katz was a similar age, albeit 90 years later, he wore this helmet for cranial remolding therapy. About half of children will have flat parts of their skulls (doctors call it plagiocephaly); some wear an (albeit drab) helmet to reshape their heads. Lauren Telchin Katz, then a project manager at our museum, and her husband decided to dress up the helmet that would help their son. As she shared in a recent text message, “We made a very ugly medical device adorable, no?” These days a teenage Henry is more likely to be seen in a batting helmet, but I still smile every time I see the tiny cap in our collections room.

Children’s helmet decorated with frog, dinosaur, star, and superhero stickers, as well as messages like “Cool Dude!” and “Henry!”
Henry Katz's pediatric cranial helmet, 2007 (2008.0194.01)

Grammar debates around the holiday may persist, but one thing’s for certain: if you’ve felt the kind of mother’s love these objects demonstrate, you know it’s a thing worth celebrating.

Leslie Poster is the director of Editorial Services at the National Museum of American History. Her mother can’t sew or knit, but did pass down a talent for spinning a yarn.