Erin Doane, Curator
WWI, many women in the region did their part for the war effort by volunteering with the Red Cross. Clara
Barton founded the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. on May 21, 1881. One of the main purposes of the organization
was, and still is, to provide support and relief to members of the military and
their families. When the First World War
broke out, the Red Cross grew into a major, nationwide organization. Membership
grew from 17,000 in 1914 to over 20 million adult and 11 million Junior Red
Cross members in 1918. That year the
Elmira Chapter of the Red Cross had 12,302 members from throughout the county.
|American Red Cross Identification Card, 1918|
of the Elmira Chapter were active in many different way to help the troops and
their families. They raised money to
offer financial help to military families at home and sent Christmas care
packages to soldiers and sailors. During the last year of the war, local members
manufactured and shipped 14,928 knitted articles overseas including 8,062 pairs
of socks, 4,049 sweaters, and 1,948 pairs of wristlets. They shipped 16,154
hospital garments to the Atlantic Division and manufactured 617,986 surgical
|Volunteers in front of Canteen Headquarters in Elmira, 1918|
Red Cross Canteen service in Elmira was established in early June of 1918. Canteen volunteers served sandwiches, coffee,
lemonade, cookies, candy, and even ice cream to soldiers passing through the
city on troop trains. They also offered medical assistance to any sick soldiers
on the trains. In four months, 126,798
soldiers received hospitality from Canteen workers. In a letter dated August 6, 1918, Captain
Charles Talbot of the 157th Infantry expresses his gratitude by
writing, “…we are grateful indeed and never shall forget your city or the sweet
ladies of the Elmira Canteen. Such
hospitality makes a soldier love his country more and sends him away with a
warm and tender feeling in his breast for the splendid womanhood of our
|August 6, 1918 letter from Capt. Talbot to Mrs. Morrow of the Elmira Red Cross|
|Troops receiving ice cream from Elmira Canteen volunteers, 1918|
now for a bit of melodramatic historical fiction inspired by a Red Cross
volunteer’s hat in the museum’s collection.
All the men were dressed
in the same dull olive uniforms but somehow he looked different. He stood just
a bit taller. His shoulders were just a bit straighter. Emmeline’s eyes kept
finding him of their own accord as she served lemonade to the line soldiers.
She unconsciously tucked a stray wisp of hair back up under her stiff-brimmed
hat and offered a brilliant smile to the next man in line. All the Red Cross Canteen volunteers had
learned to smile even though the pall of death seemed to loom over every soldier
Harrison had never been
so nervous in all his life but he refused to show it. He was a soldier now. He
could not let his outward show of confidence slip. Each stop along the train
route made him more tense. They were going to war and every mile of track that
passed brought them closer to the trenches of Europe. He had been just as excited as every one of
his young friends to fight when war was declared but now reality pressed down
He took a deep breath
and straightened his shoulders once more. As his eyes scanned over his fellows,
they suddenly fell upon the most beautiful pair of blue eyes he had ever seen.
His heart skipped a beat and his breath caught.
She stared back at him like a butterfly impaled by his gaze. Her pink,
bow-shaped lips parted.
Emmeline felt the color
rise in her cheeks but she could not look away. She felt an unlived future
flash between them. She saw their small
house, the Christmas wreath cheerfully decorating the door. She felt their baby soft and warm in her
arms. She heard him whisper her name and
reach for her in the night when the war had come back to haunt him. She blinked the sudden daydream from her eyes
and he was standing before her.
The girl's hand trembled
slightly as she offered him a cup of lemonade. As he reached to take it from
her, his fingers covered hers. Her youthful vibrancy radiated through him like the
heat of late summer’s sun. He wanted
nothing more than to take her into his arms and never let her go.
She lifted her head and
tilted her chin slightly, ready for the kiss she did not realize she was
requesting. The figures around them,
soldiers and volunteers, faded. Their
voices hushed to a faint buzz. There was nothing outside of the young couple as
time hung in a frozen, unanswered eternity.
The train blew a sharp
blast. Soldiers sprang into motion at
the barked orders from their officers. Emmeline
and Harrison gazed at each other for one more painful, longing-filled moment
then he reluctantly let his fingers slip from hers.
called it the war to end all wars. If only that had been true.
|Elmira Red Cross Canteen volunteer’s hat, 1918|