The Man Who Inspired Father’s Day Was a Single Dad and a Civil War Vet
Written by John D. Trausch
Father’s Day is a relatively new holiday, having only become “official” in 1972. But its origins go back to a Civil War veteran.
The holiday’s inspiration was William Jackson Smart, a twice-widowed father of 14. Smart was also a double-Civil War veteran—meaning he fought for both sides.
Smart, from Arkansas, was a 19-year-old driving a supply wagon for Confederacy when he has captured by the U.S. at the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862. What happened next is unclear, but Smart soon reemerged as a soldier fighting for the Union. Smart was one of more than 100,000 Southerners who rejected the Confederacy and fought for the U.S. during the Civil War. (Every Southern state except South Carolina raised at least a battalion to defend the U.S.)
After the war, Smart married and started his family. After his first wife died, Smart and his second wife relocated to eastern Washington in the late 1880s.
Years later, one of Smart’s daughters, Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, wondered that since there was a Mother’s Day celebrating all things maternal, why not a Father’s Day?
“He was both father and mother to me and my brothers and sisters,” Sonora later told the Spokane Daily Chronicle. “I remember everything about him!”
In 1910, Sonora petitioned local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers, and politicians to recognize dear old dads. Her idea caught on, and Washington State celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on June 19, 1910.
Mother’s Day was always more popular, and that holiday, thanks in large part to the retailers who lobbied to make that day official. President Woodrow Wilson had approved a Mother’s Day resolution in 1914 in honor of “that tender, gentle army, the mothers of America.”
Father’s Day was a tougher sell, perhaps, as one florist lamented, “fathers haven’t the same sentimental appeal that mothers have.”
Sonora continually pushed for a national Father’s Day, and her efforts caught the attention of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential nominee and Secretary of State, who sent Sonora a letter of support, creating more momentum for the day.
Slowly, the Dad’s Day idea spread. In 1916, on an odd demonstration of then-modern technology, Wilson honored the day (not a holiday yet) in Washington, D.C. by pressing a button, which signaled telegraph signals to be sent to Spokane, where a flag was unfurled.
In the 1920s, a movement arose to combine Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in favor of a single Parents’ Day. The idea was continued in the Great Depression when retailers wanted to make Father’s Day a “second Christmas” for men, to encourage sales of ties, hats, socks, pipes and tobacco, and golf clubs...”
Sonora spent much of the next 60 years pushing for the official recognition of Father’s Day as a national holiday. But it wasn’t until 1972 when in the midst of his re-election campaign, President Richard Nixon signed a Congressional resolution finally making Father’s Day a federal holiday. Sonora, who would live until 1978, was then 90 years old. Today, economists estimate that Americans spend more than $16 billion each year on Father’s Day gifts.