The first official event to explicitly celebrate fatherhood was on July 5, 1908, in a church in a West Virginia town still reeling over a mining disaster that cost the lives of 362 men, many of whom where fathers. The church delivered a Sunday sermon in memory of the fathers who perished that day, and some recognize that as the first Father’s Day.
The idea for a national holiday to celebrate dear old Dad came from then 16-year-old Sonora Louise Smart Dodd, whose widower father raised her and her five younger brothers alone. In 1909, Dodd was listening to a Mother’s Day sermon when she realized the need for a day to celebrate fathers, especially her own.
According to her obituary in the New York Times, Dodd drew up a petition for the first Father’s Day, to be celebrated near her father’s birthday in June. After getting her city, Spokane, and state, Washington, on board with the holiday, Dodd spent much of her life campaigning to make Father’s Day a national holiday, which is why none of us will ever be as devoted a child as Dodd, and why most of us will always be a slight disappointment to our own fathers.
Dodd’s push wasn’t easy, though. Although Mother’s Day was declared a national holiday in 1914, Father’s Day wasn’t nationally recognized until 1972. Part of the reason it took so long for Father’s Day to become a national holiday is because of resistance to the idea—from men.
In the book American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia (you can buy it for Dad on Amazon!), historian Timothy Marr wrote that “in the holiday’s early decades, men scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products—often paid for by the father himself.”
How dare families try to domesticate dads with gifts instead of letting them eat raw bear meat while standing shirtless in the woods, right?
But not even fragile masculinity can stand in the way of capitalism. Despite a movement in the 1920s and ’30s to do away with both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and celebrate a shared “Parents’ Day,” in the wake of the Great Depression, retailers pushed to keep the holidays separate, equal, and focused on gift buying. According to Time, Father’s Day became a big deal in 1938 when the National Dry Goods Retail Organization announced that it would work to make Father’s Day as big as Mother’s Day. Once other industries realized the profit potential in commercializing people’s love for their fathers, they founded the National Council for the Promotion of Father’s Day a year later.
As women fought for equality in the workplace and at home, including more equitable division of domestic duties, men decided to fight of holiday parity. As Time notes, it became “stranger that women were celebrated in a way that fathers weren’t yet.” After all, if men were going to have to share household chores, shouldn’t they have equal opportunity to spill eggs on their sheets while they pretend to enjoy eating breakfast in bed?
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation calling upon the recognition of the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day, writing at the time: “If the father’s responsibilities are many, his rewards are also great—the love, appreciation, and respect of children and spouse.” Then in 1970, Congress passed Joint Resolution 187, which called on citizens to “offer public and private expressions of such day to the abiding love and gratitude which they bear for their fathers,” and President Richard Nixon made it official in 1972, ensuring that children had to buy neckties, golf tees, and barbecue tools every June for eternity.
Fast-forward to today, and the National Retail Federation predicts Father’s Day spending will reach an estimated $16 billion in 2019, up from last year’s $15.3 billion, on tools, special outings, golf clubs, and an estimated $80 million Hallmark cards destined to make their way to dear old Dad’s man cave.