Edmond P. DeRousse

Father’s Day History

Nearly 4,000 years ago a young Babylonian boy named Elmesu carved a message to his father on a card. He wished his father good health and a long life. Although there is no record of young Elmesu or his father, some scholars believe that was the start of Father’s Day. 

Today, there are two prevailing theories on the celebration of Father’s Day. One claims it originated in West Virginia. The other claims Spokane, Washington as it origin.

On the 5th of July 1908 Father’s Day was celebrated at the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South in Fairmont, west Virginia. The celebration came at the suggestion of Grace Golden Clayton. The celebration was authorized by Dr. R. Thomas Webb, Minister. The date was chosen because it was the Sunday closest to her father’s birthdate. 

The celebration was inspired by a horrific tragedy which had occurred at the Monongah mine 6 December 1907. 360 men, 210 of which were fathers, lost their lives in the mine explosion. Many still consider it to be the worst mining disasters in American history.  

Fairmont, West Virginia, though, is not generally accepted as the birthplace. Three things probably contributed to it being thought of in such a way.

          1.  July 4, 1908 was the largest celebration in Fairmont history. Nearly 12,000 spectators came to see daredevil acts, hot air balloons, games, and eats.

          2.  Also on the 4th of July 16-year-old Lucy Billingslea died at her house of Typhoid fever after being ill for three weeks. The newspapers carried the funeral sermon. Afterwards there was no thought given to carrying on or promoting the Father’s Day celebration.

          3.  Grace Clayton never spoke publicly about the event. She was a quiet unassuming person. 

Most credit 27-year-old Sonora Louise Smart Dodd, one of six children, as the person responsible for Father’s Day. She got the idea in 1909 while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon. Dodd wanted to recognize her father. To her he was an exceptional man. Henry Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran, raised her and her siblings after the death of their mother. She believed he made all the parental sacrifices and was courageous, selfless, and loving. 

Henry Smart’s birthday was June 5th, so she chose June as the time to celebrate fathers. She wanted to celebrate it on the 5th but others were involved, and they felt there would not be enough time to prepare so the third Sunday was chosen. 19 June 1910 was the first official Father’s Day in Spokane, Washington. 

The idea for Father’s Day began to spread across the country but not without some controversy. Many men believed that the holiday was too sentimental and would affect their masculinity with flowers and gift-giving. They considered it a gimmick to sell more products which the father paid for anyway. 

Regardless, Woodrow Wilson celebrated it in 1916. Calvin Coolidge declared it a National holiday in 1924. Lyndon Johnson in 1966, by official order, made it a holiday to be celebrated on the third Sunday. A Congressional Act was passed in 1972 to officially recognize the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day.

Some Father’s Day Trivia

There are over 70 million fathers in the United States.

President Wilson, to celebrate Father’s Day in 1916, used telegraph signals to unfurl a flag in Spokane, Washington. He sent the signal from Washington, D.C.

There was a movement in the 1920s and 1930s to do away with Father’s and Mother’s Day in favor of a single holiday, Parent’s Day.

In Europe and Latin-America, fathers are honored on March 19. It is a traditional Catholic holiday called St. Joseph’s Day.

Today, economists estimate that Americans spend more than $1 billion each year on Father’s Day gifts.