Rhode Island Joseph Samuels, the first merchant to promote Mother’s Day nationally

By Larry Reid

The origins of Mother’s Day as celebrated in the United States date back to the 19th century. Before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia helped start “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to teach local women how to properly care for their children. Another precursor to Mother’s Day came from the abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe. In 1870 Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace. Maud Howe Elliott, Julia’s daughter, and a Newport resident, was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2008.

The first merchant to promote Mother’s Day was Joseph Samuels, who founded the Outlet Company in Providence in 1894. It became a tradition for Rhode Island mothers to line up outside the Outlet Company to receive their free carnations. Samuels’ idea spread to other retailers across the nation. Creativity was always one of Samuel’s great strengthsWhen he opened a small store on Westminster Street, every possible card was stacked against him. The country had not yet shaken off the inertia of a widespread depression. He had no Chamber of Commerce to welcome him. Merchants in the area resented his marketing strategies, and the Providence Journal refused to accept his advertising. The small store he opened on Westminster Street was bare of furnishings, and the stock was piled on packing cases used as counters. It was called the Manufacturers’ Outlet because it was a direct outlet from the manufacturer to the consumer with no middleman costs. He succeeded by buying quality products and turning them over fast. Samuels came up with remarkable new ideas and enterprise and readily overcame the obstacles placed in his way.  

His advertising methods were unlike any Rhode Island had ever been exposed to. He sent men wearing signboards announcing bargain prices. The angry reaction of the conservative downtown merchants to the “sandwich men” parading up and down in front of their stores brought an advertising ban from the Providence Journal. He answered rejection by starting The Outlet Bulletin, a weekly free newspaper with a circulation of 100,000, the largest in Rhode Island. It was a crusading newspaper with an editorial policy. 

Joseph Samuels saw that the Outlet Company became a well-known institution throughout Rhode Island. Free band concerts were provided for the people in various public parks throughout the Providence metropolitan area. The Outlet Company’s name was kept before the public in its various acts of philanthropy. The best-known act of charity is the Joseph Samuels Dental Clinic for Children. Samuels gave $300,000 to the Rhode Island Hospital for the construction and endowment of a children’s dental clinic. A resolution was passed by the Rhode Island Legislature lauding Joseph Samuels for this magnanimous act. Samuels replied: “The people of Rhode Island have been very good to me, and I know no better way to show my appreciation for their goodness.” 

Joseph Samuels had the reputation of being interested in every detail of the store’s management even after the business had hundreds of salesclerks and buyers. In his biography of Joseph Samuels, author Ralph Begleiter said, “When he died, the Outlet Company lost the kind of ultimate management which only Joseph Samuels could provide. With his passing, a spirit of family ownership, personal care, and attention to the store slipped away, which pervaded these institutions only because the man who nurtured them through spectacular growth could take risks and make decisions. That spirit never returned to the Outlet Company.”

Joseph Samuels was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1968.

Larry Reid is the president of The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

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