Do Your Bit! Women on the Home Front

 

Knitter

W. T. Benda, “You can help–American Red Cross,” 1918. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-9645

The King City Chronicle announced in its September 14, 1917, issue that the national Red Cross had granted King City permission to form a local branch. The first meeting, to be held a week later, would show ways to “be better enabled to ‘Do Your Bit’ to aid in the great cause . . . for the rights of humanity and of nations.” Businesses were asked to close during the time of the meeting, between 2 and 3 pm.

King City wasn’t alone in setting up a Red Cross chapter. After President Wilson established the War Council for the American Red Cross in May 1917, the relief organization mounted an impressive campaign to win public support in raising money, volunteering, and producing items “for the benefit of soldiers.”

The campaign succeeded. Between 1914 and 1918, Red Cross chapters grew in number from 107 to 3,864, and membership swelled from 16,000 to over 20 million adults, plus an additional 11 million children in the Junior Red Cross.*

Within weeks of that September meeting in King City, residents had formed committees and started to work. The Military Relief Committee oversaw the kind of work my family did–knitting, making hospital supplies, comfort kits, and–here’s a surprise–“snipping.”  (My mind swerved over to “snippy” as I wondered why there was need to organize that activity.)  The Chronicle ran a special explanation.

snippings

King City Chronicle, October 19, 1917.

My family certainly “did their bit.” Grandma, her younger sister Mary, and their mother made over 200 garments, most of them sewn, for the Red Cross and other agencies, according to an account of my great-grandmother. Many of these pieces were bandages needed in hospitals, here and abroad, for injured soldiers. Just as my great-grandmother kept track of what they’d made, so did Red Cross chapters. On November 23, 1917, the Chronicle ran a first-page story, noting “King City Chapter has turned out more knitted garments than any other chapter in the County.”

Grandma parlor?

I imagine settings like this, in a farmhouse parlor, where women gathered to work on wartime projects. From our family collection of photographs, undated and women unidentified.

Down the road about nine miles, residents in Union Star (population 400, then and now) had also been busy knitting, sending articles to Camp Funston. Grandpa reported he didn’t receive any, as the captain thought him “rich.”

Union Start Red Cross rec

Letter to Grandma, January 4, 1918

In tiny Amity, Missouri, where Grandpa was born and about 100 people lived at the time of the war, residents sent fruit. On November 17, 1917, Grandpa wrote, “we Dekalb co boys got a barrel of pears from Amity.” The next day, while his group was under quarantine for illnesses, he reported they had made preserves with the pears, adding “the Livingston co boys got a barrel of canned fruit and we served it for dinner, was fine, several kinds of fruit.” Other delicacies from home included homemade candies and cakes.

The generosity of the folks back home often exceeded the needs of the soldiers. Trench and Camp, the weekly newspaper at Camp Funston, ran a column before Christmas, 1917, asking “thoughtful ones at home” not to send food in holiday boxes. “Men receiving foodstuffs nibble between meals; stomachs get upset, and where the sender of foodstuffs started out to be kind and thoughtful, they may be the cause of sending a loved one on ‘sick report.'” In short, the U.S. Army was serving enough food.

And those knitted articles being made at home? By the end of 1917, Trench and Camp reported that Camp Funston had distributed “35,999 sweaters, 25,737 pairs of socks, besides many helmets and wristlets.” And, by the end of March 1918, the growing supply of knitted articles, mostly from the Red Cross, led–as reported in Trench and Camp–to an order that required an inventory, a system of equitable distribution in accordance “with actual needs,” and a monitoring plan “to see to it that they are not sold or otherwise indiscriminately disposed of by enlisted men.” (As a knitter, I laughed and sighed at what I know is true: men don’t always like sweaters knitted with love. So, knitted hats off to the Army to control this behavior!)

Even as friends and families “did their bit” to keep up the spirits of their soldier boys, the hardships of training and war found their way home. There were personal costs. One showed up in letters Grandpa wrote his “dear girl” in early 1918.

 

*The Red Cross includes these statistics in their history of the Red Cross in World War One, at www.redcross.org/about-us/history.

 

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