From a Daughter’s Heart to a National Celebration: The History of Father’s Day

5 June 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Just as many of us are captivated by tracing our own family history, we can also dive into the history of holidays like Father’s Day. Over time, it has become a staple in our annual calendars, taking place on the third Sunday in June. 

Journeying through its history can offer us a chance to reflect on cultural heritage, familial structures, and the shifting role of fathers in society. Learn more about how Father’s Day became an official holiday in the United States and where this day first originated.

When Was Father’s Day Set as an Official Holiday?

In the United States, Father’s Day became a permanent official federal holiday in 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed it into law. His proclamation stated that “To have a father—to be a father—is to come very near the heart of life itself” and emphasized the important contributions of fathers in the country. However, this holiday’s history goes back a tad further than that.

The first official Father’s Day event occurred in Spokane, Washington, on June 19, 1910, but it remained a niche celebration. However, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a presidential proclamation designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. Similarly to President Nixon, President Johnson signed the proclamation as a way to formally recognize fathers, their role in society, and their importance in providing the “strength and stability which characterize the successful family.”

The Origin Story Behind Father’s Day

The founding of Father’s Day is attributed to Washingtonian Sonora Smart Dodd. Her father, William Jackson Smart, was a twice-widowed Civil War veteran who raised six children alone following the death of his wife. Inspired by a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, she wished to honor her father by designating a day to celebrate all fathers. 

She petitioned for a day dedicated to fathers and persuaded leaders of the Spokane Ministerial Alliance and the local YMCA to support her initiative. With their assistance, the idea of Father’s Day spread through Spokane. On June 19, 1910, Nelson S. Pratt and Marion E. Hay, mayor of Spokane and Governor of Washington respectively, signed proclamations to celebrate Father’s Day.

Although Sonora Dodd is widely considered the “mother” of Father’s Day, a catastrophic event would also lead to an early celebration of fathers in the U.S.

On the opposite end of the country, in 1908, West Virginia became the site of what is widely considered to be the worst mining disaster in American history. On the morning of December 6, 1907, what would become known as the Monongah Mine Disaster began when a massive explosion rocked two sites at the Monongah Mine. It instantly killed hundreds of men, many of them fathers, and left more than 300 others trapped. By December 12 of that year, newspapers estimated that up to 500 men had perished.

Seven months later, on July 5, 1908, the town of Fairmont, West Virginia, held a service for the victims of the Monongah Mine Disaster. Because the service centered on fathers, as the deceased were mostly men, some circles tend to consider it a precursor to Father’s Day. However, beyond the local ceremony to remember the victims, the event never evolved past that.

Give the Gift of History and Trace Your Paternal Lineage 

As a direct part of your family history, your father is a key ingredient in what makes you unique. Whether you want to explore the links you share through DNA or wish to let him explore his heritage, Ancestry® can help you make this Father’s Day a very special one.

Start a free trial of Ancestry today and explore vast collections of historical records, build your family tree, and learn more about your family history.