How America's Worst Mining Disaster led to Twenty Million Ugly Neckties: A Brief History of Father's Day

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.
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American serviceman James Blake is shown with his adopted Japanese-American son in Kisarazu, Japan in 1955. (Photo: Getty Images)

Fathers may come in every shape and size, but on one special day each year, they are all the same: impossible to shop for.

Luckily for us, most dads don't seem to mind our feeble annual offerings of ugly neckties and gawdy gadgets. In fact, according to psychologist Nicole Gilbert Cote, a researcher of Father's Day phenomena, fathers are more likely to be satisfied with their holiday than mothers are with theirs.

"The bar is lower, and Dad is OK with that," assured the University of Massachusetts-Amherst lecturer in National Geographic.

But when did the fuss over Father's Day even begin? Here's a quick look at some of the holiday's surprising history.

BORN OF TRAGEDY

On December 6, 1907, two coal mines in Monongah, West Virginia exploded, igniting plumes of methane gas and killing 362 workers while leaving over 1,000 children in town fatherless.

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The bodies of the deceased line the streets of Monongah, West Virginia shortly after the accident. (Photo: pbs.org)

It was called the "worst mining disaster in American history". Seven months later, Grace Golden Clayton, who had lost her father in the accident, held a commemoration for the 210 fathers who were lost in the tragedy, inviting the families of victims to join together in prayer.

"It was partly the explosion that got me to thinking how important and loved most fathers are," she said, according to Marion County historian Glenn Lough. "All those lonely children and heartbroken wives and mothers, made orphans and widows in a matter of a few minutes. Oh, how sad and frightening to have no father, no husband, to turn to at such an awful time."

However, because the town never publicized or registered the day, for decades the credit for Father's Day went to Sonora Dodd, who started her own version of the holiday two years later in Spokane, Washington.

Asked in 1939 to explain what had inspired her to set aside a day to honor America's family men, Dodd went straight to the source.

"[My father's] kindness and the sacrifices he made inspired me," she explained in the New York Sun. "Besides that, at that time the pendulum of disrespect for fathers had swung too far, I thought. People were singing such songs as 'Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now' and 'Everybody Works But Father'."

"I thought that fathers should be revered as mothers have always been."

CORPORATE AMERICA TAKES NOTICE

By 1924, Father's Day had a number of outspoken advocates, including President Calvin Coolidge, who recommended that it be named a official holiday. 

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Coolidge, seated, poses with his family as his father looks on. (Photo: Getty Images)

Taking a moment to remember his own father, Coolidge didn't mince words:

“He was a man of untiring industry and great tenacity of purpose. . . He always stuck to the truth. I cannot recall that I ever knew of his doing a wrong thing. He would be classed as decidedly a man of character.”

Despite the presidential endorsement, it wasn't until the efforts of the National Father's Day Council, formed in 1931, that the holiday really began to gain traction. Using the media to gain exposure, the council -- largely made up of retailers -- began awarding "Father of the Year" honors to the nation's leaders and luminaries to place the holiday at the forefront of the minds of publicity-minded legislators.

Their efforts were finally rewarded in 1956, when the holiday was officially recognized by a Joint Session of Congress. A decade later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law, reserving the third Sunday of June for America's fathers and a top shelf spot for himself in Hallmark's Hall of Fame.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Although Hallmark didn't start selling Father's Day cards until the 1920s, they've since had plenty of time to catch up -- today, it's the fourth highest grossing holiday on the greeting card circuit. More than 90% purchased are by women, and not surprisingly, trend towards the humorous.

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Do dad a favor this Father's Day and resist the urge to get him one of these ties. (Photo: tieracksblog.com)

The rest of the $11 billion that we spend on Dad? It goes to golf trips, steak dinners, gawdy electronics, and yes, ugly neckties -- according to an 1987 estimate from the Neckwear Association of America, more than 20 million ties are given away every Father's Day.

But even though dads have traditionally been the parental unit less doted upon -- according to a study by the National Retail Federation, children will spend $106.49 on their fathers this year versus $140.73 for mothers -- change may soon be on the horizon.

"As women's roles outside the household are expanding, men's roles in the household are expanding," said Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher.

And so could our pocketbooks, according to NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

“Spending on Dad has taken a backseat for the past few years, but some kids and wives are planning to make up for lost time this Father’s Day,” said Shay. “Shoppers seem to be more excited when it comes to gift giving, an encouraging sign for retailers – and dads – everywhere.”

In other words, open up your wallets, ungrateful spawn. It's time to honor Dad, the American way.

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