Slippers made with shells and card

Gift giving on Mother's Day

Once a year, when I was a teenager, my father would take a few notes from his wallet and hand them to me and my sisters with instructions to go down the street and "get your mother a pair of slippers". This was his contribution to Mother's Day, and every year Mum seemed delighted when she opened that surprise gift.

With a preference for bare feet, I'm quite pleased that my sons didn't carry on the family tradition but remembering those slippers recently made me curious about the whole concept of Mother's Day. Presuming it was made up so that shops could sell sentimental gifts and shmaltzy gift cards, I went exploring in Trove and discovered that I was wrong.

A special day to recognise mothers started with a US campaign around the same time as the first International Women's Day in Europe, more than a hundred years ago. But in Australia, the tradition of giving gifts on this day began in 1924 with a kind and enterprising woman who was concerned about people who were lonely or forgotten.

Mother's Day in 1924

While Australians were encouraged to follow the practice of commemorating mothers on the second Sunday in May before World War I, gift giving on Mother's Day was started by Janet Heyden in 1924. She was on the committee for the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Strathfield, and used to visit one of their women in Sydney's Newington State Hospital.

Encountering lonely, forgotten, and elderly mothers in the hospital worried Mrs Heyden and she started to campaign for donations to buy presents for these women. Newspapers carried her appeals, and she made personal requests to many of Sydney's leading business houses. School children were co-opted to make bags for the gifts and retail stores all over the nation took up the idea in following years.

In the Sun Herald in 1954, she was quoted as saying "... the appeal through the newspapers made sure that hundreds of mothers who would otherwise have been forgotten received a Mother's Day gift. It was wonderful." Mrs Heyden continued to visit the lonely and forgotten women in Newington, until her death in 1960.

From blanket scraps to lambswool lining

Trove, Australia's online library database, is a fabulous place to find information about our past. Anyone can search newspapers and magazines that are decades old and its the logical place to find out how people celebrated Mother's Day in years gone by.

Slippers were mentioned in the 1930s, but not as a Mother's Day gift. Thrifty housewives were advised to make dressing gowns from old blankets, and slippers from the scraps. The most common Mother's Day advertisements at the start of this decade were for Church services, concerts, and choir performances on the day. Photographs seemed to be popular gifts, along with an entirely new idea, Mothers' Day Bookmarks, including the deluxe White Satin Ribbon Bookmarks with hand-painted designs, price: 4d. or 6d. (postage extra).

1930s stockings 1950s slippers

By 1939, a little decadence had crept into the range of gifts with A.D. EATHER'S in Kurri Kurri offering the Gay Deceiver, Black Magic, or Sheer Lovliness because "Mother likes good stockings too!" Decorum would have dictated that the corset that held them up wasn't mentioned.

Moving right along from the affordable and thoughtful gifts of soap and handkerchiefs that Janet Heyden started with, by 1940 Hunter Bros in Wagga Wagga was pushing for more ambitious and memorable gifts. In their view, the most wonderful small radio ever, the Airzone CUB was the perfect gift. It was portable (the size of an attache case) which meant Mother could take it around the house when "she's cooking or cleaning or doing other chores." 12 Guineas for standard colours, 13 Guineas for light cream or green (almost $1,400 today).

Slippers seemed to come into their own as a gift idea after WWII, with H. J. Barnes The Shoe Store in Invernell asking "what better could you give for a Mother's Day Gift" in 1947. By 1951, David Jones was boasting 10,000 pairs of fine slippers to make Mother's Day gift selection simple. These practical gifts for mum were made from soft wool felts, leathers, and snug lambswools, with the ambitiously-named Everest pair sporting a high heel and wool lining. Packed in a special gift box, the slippers were priced from a modest 12/6. Though the deluxe Everest was the equivalent of $130+ today.

By the end of the 1960s, everyone was on the Mother's Day bandwagon with butchers advertising mother's day gift pork sausages, and Sunbeam promoting all manner of time saving kitchen gadgets. For mothers too tired to do the ironing, the Regal Relax-Sit ironing board for $36.95 ($500+) was just the thing!

Discount Centres enticed shoppers with offerings ranging from the Lady's Agfa Camera which was only marginally more affordable than the Deluxe Debutante hair dryer at $16.90 (approx $230). Woolworths too suggested hair dryers and heaters, but the Women's Weekly outdid them all with a hot fashion item for Mother's Day the wonderful Vulcan Tamgi, a portable heater and cooler which was perfect as a hair dryer and clothes dryer, too!

Slippers were back at David Jones in 1972 as washable lambswool foot muffs with foam sock in pink, blue, or camel. $3.99 (almost $50). Probably soon to be superceded by bright orange, all-electric slippers for women who like to stay still. Photo courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum.

At the end of this decade, the Women's Weekly had instructions for making all manner of gifts from fabric using Decorator Date, Little Trimmer (for lace and ribbon), and Hems Up fabric adhesives (instead of sewing) to save time. The Interior Design Editor recommended colour co-ordinating these personalised gifts to match mother's favourite possessions. Some of these glued-together gifts would be a hit today and if anyone wants instructions for the John Kaldor milk carton vase, here's the link.

Gift giving today

One gift that held its own against the electronics and kitchen knick-knacks during the sixties and seventies was the indispensable Glomesh handbag. Angus and Coote advertised a range in 1966 with the latest, must-have evening number available for $23.50 (approx $370) and terms gladly arranged. The 1970s What’s in your bag? campaign, featuring Jacki Weaver, Jenny Kee, Carla Zampatti and Belinda Green (among others) helped cement this Bondi brand as an Australian success story. Until the 1980s. Though these days original Glomesh handbags are sought-after collectibles.

Trove has fewer advertisements from the 1980s, but from that decade onward there seems to have been a resurgence in make-it-yourself gifts and buying from charity stalls, along with an increase in promotions suggesting a special lunch or dinner instead of (or as well as) a gift for Mum.

Today, a hundred years after the Mother's Day gift tradition started, it is overwhelmingly being driven by commercial interests. Google search lists the discount stores at the top with sleepwear getting a special mention. The Aldi catalogue also has sleepwear and a lot of pastel stuff, Frida Kahlo cushions, and cold coffee in cans that women might  or might not want. David Jones has Tasman Slippers from Ugg that are suitable for inside and outdoors.

Roy Morgan research indicates that Australians will spend $5M shy of a billion dollars on this year's Mother's Day, with flowers being the most popular gift category followed by food and drink.

We've strayed a long way from Janet Heyden's intent, but it's still a great day to show appreciation for all the mothers in our lives. And while foodie gifts and and fine wine are always appreciated, something that will make her feel great for more than a day gets my vote.



Finally, if I was in the business of giving advice about Mother's Day gifts, it would be similar to that expressed in Now (Potts Point publication) in the 3 May 1972 edition.

Before you lumber Mother with a chenille dressing gown or a chain store electric toaster for her Day of Days, ask yourself if YOU'D like to be thought of in terms of no-nonsense clothing and sturdy gadgets. Or [would] you rather summon up visions of rustling silks, tingling bells, and long sensuous gowns? SO WOULD SHE. Like she's a woman TOO!

And if I was looking for a pair of slippers, the bright pink ankle boots from the Koalabi Australian-made range would fit the bill.


Shell slippers made at a workshop with Aunty Maxine Ryan at La Perouse Museum.

Stockings, slippers, camera box, and radio from contemporary advertisments.
Electric slippers from Powerhouse Museum website.
Glomesh handbag from Glomesh website.


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