On Sunday, June 19, dads across the United States will be showered with gifts as they celebrate Father’s Day. Though it’s something we can count on celebrating every time the third Sunday in June rolls around, the holiday didn't always have the public support it deserved. In fact, for decades it looked as if a day dedicated to the influential and hard-working fathers in our lives would toil in relative obscurity. Read on to learn about the tragic origins and eventual nationwide acceptance of this beloved holiday.
1. The first modern Father's Day was rooted in tragedy.
On July 5, 1908—the same year that Mother's Day is credited as beginning—a small church in West Virginia held the first public event meant to specifically honor the fathers of their community. The day was held in remembrance of the 362 men who were killed the previous December in a mining explosion at the Fairmont Coal Company. Though this specific day did not transform into an annual tradition in the town, it did set a precedent of reserving a day for dads everywhere.
2. Washington was the first state to celebrate Father's Day.
In 1909, Spokane resident Sonora Smart Dodd was listening to a Mother’s Day sermon at her local church when she had the idea to try and establish a similar day to honor the hard-working fathers of the community. Dodd was the daughter of a widower and Civil War veteran named William Jackson Smart, who raised six children on his own after his wife died during childbirth.
She contacted local church groups, government officials, YMCAs, businesses, and other official entities, hoping to gather the community to recognize fathers around the state of Washington. The campaign Dodd embarked upon would eventually culminate in the first statewide Father’s Day celebration in 1910.
3. That Father’s Day takes place on the third Sunday in June just happened by accident.
While Father’s Day always takes place on the third Sunday of June now, that date was actually a compromise after the original turned out to be unrealistic. Dodd’s goal was for the holiday to be observed on June 5 to land on her father’s birthday, but when the mayor of Spokane and local churches asked for more time to prepare for all the festivities involved, it was moved to the third Sunday in June, where it remains today. Officially, the first Father’s Day celebration took place on June 19, 1910.
4. Roses were originally a big part of the Father’s Day celebration.
The first Father’s Day included a church service where daughters would hand red roses to their fathers during the mass. The roses were also pinned onto the clothing of children to further honor their fathers—red roses for a still-living father and a white rose for the deceased. Dodd also brought roses and gifts to any father in the community who was unable to make it to the service. This gave birth to the now-nearly-forgotten tradition of roses as the customary flower of Father’s Day.
5. Not everyone was happy with the idea of making Mother’s Day and Father’s Day separate holidays.
In the 1920s and '30s, there was a movement to get rid of Mother's Day and the burgeoning Father's Day celebrations and instead join the two holidays as a unified Parents' Day. Robert Spere (also known as Robert Spero), a philanthropist and children’s radio entertainer, saw the holidays as a “division of respect and affection” for parents, especially during a time when Father's Day hadn’t officially been recognized nationwide.
“We should all have love for dad and mother every day, but Parents' Day on the second Sunday in May is a reminder that both parents should be loved and respected together,” Spere told The New York Times in 1931. The movement died out in the '40s, but if it had gone through, we'd all be celebrating Parents' Day every year with the slogan, “A kiss for mother, a hug for dad.”
6. Presidents recognized Father’s Day before the federal government did.
The holiday soon broke through, leaving the exclusivity of Washington State and making its way to other regions across the country. Woodrow Wilson commemorated it by unfurling an American flag in Spokane by way of a special telegraph all the way from Washington, D.C., in 1916. Progress on the holiday was slowed, though, when Wilson—who had previously signed a proclamation to recognize Mother's Day as a national holiday—never signed the same paperwork for Father's Day.
Presidents still continued to recognize a day for fathers, just not in an official way from the federal government. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge urged people to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations,” and recommended that states recognize Father's Day. But in Silent Cal’s famous laissez-faire way, he didn’t impose anything official.
Urging people to do something doesn't quite carry the same weight as a president's signature, and Father's Day remained an unofficial holiday left up to individual states and communities for the next few decades.
7. Father’s Day wasn't officially recognized as a national holiday until 1972.
It took until 1966 for President Lyndon Johnson to make a nationwide proclamation endorsing Father’s Day across the country. In his proclamation [PDF], Johnson wrote that on June 19, 1966, “I invite State and local governments to cooperate in the observance of that day; and I urge all our people to give public and private expression to the love and gratitude which they bear for their fathers.”
Nowhere in Johnson's proclamation did it say anything about what would happen on Father's Day the next year, though, and the corresponding Joint Resolution specified “the third Sunday in June of 1966.” It wasn't until President Richard Nixon signed Public Law 92-278 that Father's Day was permanently recognized by the federal government [PDF].
8. In Europe, Father's Day has its roots in the Middle Ages.
For Catholics in Europe, the idea of Father's Day stretches back to feasts established in the Middle Ages to honor Saint Joseph on March 19. The celebration was prevalent in countries like Spain, France, and Italy, and as it focused on Joseph—the foster father of Jesus—it eventually turned into a day to honor the institution of fatherhood in general. Though many European countries have adopted a more secular observance of Father's Day, some still uphold the tradition of linking it to Saint Joseph’s Day.
9. For the French, Father’s Day is all about lighters.
The traditional feasts and celebrations around Saint Joseph began to fade in 20th-century Europe, especially in the years after World War II, so to reignite consumer interest in spending money on dear ol’ dad, a French lighter company called Flaminaire created a new Father's Day in 1949 to help sell their products. With the help of an expansive ad campaign, the company drummed up brand awareness in the guise of a holiday, and Father's Day (called Fête des Pères) has been observed in France ever since.
10. Americans are expected to spend more than $20 billion on Father’s Day gifts.
All those barbecue accessories, coffee mugs, and screwdriver sets add up: Americans are expected to spend about $20 billion on gifts in 2022 for Father’s Day, with clothing and “special outing” gear making up the bulk of the gifts.
11. And that's still far less than they spend on Mother's Day.
Though Father's Day is big business in the commercial marketplace, it still exists in the shadow of mom. In 2022, the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that Americans spent $31.7 billion on Mother's Day gifts like flowers, apparel, dinner, and spa days—a $3.6 billion increase from 2021's spending.
12. Father's Day is a big day for the humble greeting card.
Father's Day means big business for the greeting card industry. The holiday is the fourth most popular day for exchanging cards, with approximately 72 million flying off shelves annually. Hallmark—which has been producing Father's Day cards since the early 1920s—boasts more than 800 different designs for dad, with humor cards accounting for 25 percent of the cards sold. The NRF estimates that cards account for 58 percent of all Father’s Day gifts—whether the person honors dad only with a card or includes it with a larger gift.
A version of this story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.