A History of Dad's Day

Part of the Series “News
Produced by on September 3, 2016
Sonora Louise Smart Dodd

While it’s tempting to see Father’s Day as a full blown ‘Hallmark Holiday’, with sugary, over-sweet sentiment dished out through soft-focus camera shots of square-jawed Dad’s holding babies, it’s nice to discover that the whole idea of the modern Father’s Day comes from a daughter who just loved her Dad.

Father’s Day has been around in many forms for centuries. In the middle ages father’s and their role were celebrated on the Feast Day of St Joseph, held on 19th March – a tradition which continues to this day in some European and Latin American Countries. But the modern, secular idea of a specific day to say “Thanks Dad” is a very recent phenomenon – barely more than 100 years old – and is commonly credited to one woman – Sonora Louise Smart Dodd.

Sonora, born in 1882, was the eldest child and only daughter of Ellen and William Smart. When Sonora was 16 her mother died in childbirth, leaving Sonora to help her father raise her 5 younger brothers on a farm in frontier Washington. Sonora obviously felt a great deal of love and respect for her father – a single dad working hard and doing the best he could for his family – but it wasn’t until she was 27 years old, when she heard about Mother’s Day, that Sonora’s idea began to take shape.

When she first heard about “Mother’s Day”, Sonora’s immediate thought was that if mothers were to enjoy a day of recognition, then so to should fathers. She made her suggestion for “Father’s Day” to the Spokane Ministerial Alliance, and proposed her own father’s birthday as an appropriate date. While the Alliance was all for the idea of establishing a Father’s Day, they politely declined Sonora’s suggestion of the date.

The first Father’s Day as we know it took place in Spokane, Washington on 19th June 1910. But while Mother’s Day quickly gained popularity, with a law passed making it a national holiday in 1914, Father’s Day had a much rockier road to acceptance, with much of the resistance coming from fathers themselves.

Many dads were unimpressed with the idea of being given presents on Father’s Day, reasoning that, in an era of single-income families where the man was the main bread-winner, they were the ones who ultimately ended up paying for the present. Such was the sentiment that the gift giving ritual was almost the undoing of Father’s Day. But, in a strange twist of fate, it was the commercialisation of the day that saved it and cemented its place as an annual tradition.

As the Great Depression tightened its grip on the world economy in the early 1930s, retailers seized on holidays and celebrations like Father’s Day to increase their sales and create reasons for people to spend money. Shops went to great lengths to build the expectation that fathers should get gifts, and the increased promotion and recognition of Father’s Day in the retail industries spilled across to everyday life and created an acceptance that Father’s Day hadn’t previously enjoyed. By the time of WWII, Father’s Day was a regular feature of the US calendar, and was beginning to spread around the world. Scandinavian countries began adopting the celebrations in the 20s and 30s, and soon other countries were joining suit, declaring official or celebrating unofficial Father’s Days all across the world.

In Australia the idea of Father’s Day slowly crept its way into the national psyche during this time. Unofficial Father’s Day observances began popping up around the country, and in 1930, Victoria became the first Australian state to officially declare a “Father’s Day”. In South Australia, the first official Father’s Day celebrations were held on Sunday, 1st September 1935.

But, like in the US, many Australian men objected to the idea that, as the bread-winner, they would be the ones who ultimately paid for any gifts – one letter to the editor in the 1930s even suggested the Father’s Day emblem should be a cornucopia tipping out endless wealth! But the tradition began to take hold in the wide, brown land, and, as WWII started and continued, the idea of honouring fathers, many of whom were away or might never return, began to gain popularity.

By the 1950s the tradition of Father’s Day was firmly established in Australia, and gift giving was seen as an important element of the day. Newspaper ads during the 60s urge families to buy their dads socks, shirts, ties, shaving items, hardware and other ‘manly’ goods.

And now we’re in the 21st Century, and the tradition of Father’s Day in Australia is stronger than ever. This year Australians are poised to spend almost $800 million on Father’s Day gifts, buying everything from tools and clothes, to shaving equipment and electronics.

But while gift giving has always been a feature of Father’s Day since it was first established a little over 100 years ago, it is important to remember that to Sonora Dodd, the founder of the modern Father’s Day celebrations, it wasn’t the giving of the gift that was important, what Father’s Day is really about is understanding and honouring fathers.

So this Sunday, remember: Father’s Day is simply a day to appreciate those special things dad’s do, a tradition started by a daughter who just loved her Dad.

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