The History of Father's Day
You can thank a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower, for advocating this special holiday.
On Father's Day, we celebrate our fathers with cards, gifts, brunches, and well wishes. The idea for a Father's Day started to take hold in the beginning of the 1900s when Sonora Smart Dodd wanted to celebrate her own father, who had been born in June, after hearing of the newly-minted celebration of mothers for Mother's Day. That first unofficial Father's Day celebration took place in Spokane, Washington, on June 19, 1910, but it would take another 62 years—when it was recognized as an official holiday by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972—before the holiday became a real American tradition.
Not everyone was on board with a holiday that recognized fathers and the idea of giving them cards and gifts. Men of the era thought that having a Father's Day would be frivolous and unmanly, according to historian Timothy Marr in his book American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia ($255, barnesandnoble.com). At the very least, it was not considered necessary. Fathers assumed that the gifts given to them would just come from the money that they made, so it seemed very commercialized and insincere.
Dodd, however, did not let the sentiments of the day stop her from rallying behind the idea of a Father's Day. Her father had raised her and her five siblings by himself, which is one of the reasons why she pushed for a national recognition of fathers. According to historians, Dodd's enthusiasm for a Father's Day was contagious enough that Virginia created a National Father's Day committee in 1921 and New York City created one in 1936.
By that time, American presidents were getting on board for a national Father's Day, too. From President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 to President Calvin Coolidge in 1924, federal support for the holiday continued to build momentum. The decision that it would be third Sunday in June is attributed to President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, but he did not officially recognize the holiday beyond that.
The traditions for Father's Day transitioned from the giving of flowers to doing things like fishing or hunting. Gifts for Dad also changed from being replicas of what was traditionally given to mothers on Mother's Day to being gifts that the retail industry expected fathers to want. Advertisements for power tools, sports, and outdoor equipment are now the norm for Father's Day.
Dodd had begun her pursuit for a federal Father's Day when she was only 27 years old. She passed away in 1978, a year after President Nixon established a national Father's Day. Dodd, who was 96-years-old at the time, got to see her life's work come to fruition before her death, and must have been proud that started as a way for her to remember her own father, William Smart, grew into a national celebration of all fathers. It was commercialized like most holidays but still holds significant meaning for people who cherish their fathers and the relationships that they've built.