March is Red Cross month and Women’s History month—a perfect time to celebrate Red Cross founder Clara Barton, who began this organization in 1881 and served as its leader until 1904. Barton provided humanitarian aid to soldiers in the Civil War. During a visit to Europe she learned about the activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross and worked to create the American National Red Cross, which was awarded a federal charter in 1900. Today the Red Cross is an international organization and is best known in the United States for its work in disaster relief, supporting military families, and collecting blood and blood products. (If you’d like to celebrate women’s history and the Red Cross by making a donation you can find a local blood donor drive here.)
Few Americans are aware of the contribution of children to the work of the Red Cross. A Junior Red Cross began shortly after the United States' entry into World War I. On Sept. 15, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that announced this new effort to encourage school children to “work in the great cause of freedom to which we have all pledged ourselves.” It went on to promise that joining the organization “will teach you how to save in order that suffering children elsewhere may have the chance to live. It will teach you how to prepare some of the supplies which wounded soldiers and homeless families lack.”
A wartime theme presented in educational materials was the need to sacrifice at the dinner table. An educational conference in 1918 stated this aim as teaching “the boys and girls of this country to eat less candy and give up sweet drinks,” so that the sugar could be shipped to Allies and used in food for soldiers. Anyone who has ever heard about cleaning their plate because children overseas were starving should know that this lesson went back to World War I and the Junior Red Cross, when American children were also taught to “think of the hundreds of thousands, in fact millions of people who have been scourged by the German Army, and who have from two to three years been suffering not only the pangs of hunger but actual starvation.”
As members of the Junior Red Cross, children knit scarves, rolled bandages, worked in Victory Gardens, and raised money. Junior Red Cross meetings at school provided students with lessons about their health—brushing teeth, eating wholesome foods, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and keeping clean—and it encouraged children to raise funds for the war effort by selling eggs, and doing work for others such as beating carpets and varnishing chairs.