A Living History of Red Cross Volunteerism
written by – Martine Costello, Red Cross Volunteer
imagery by – Sasha Goldberg, Red Cross Volunteer
Decades of work by Red Cross volunteers came to life recently as the organization prepared to move its Massachusetts regional headquarters from Cambridge to Medford.
Volunteers in the process of packing unearthed thousands of old photos, scrapbooks, personal letters, vintage uniforms and dozens of other memorabilia that have found their way to museums and archives all over the country.
The newly discovered boxes form a rich living history of the thousands of volunteers in the region who gave from the heart for projects spanning blood drives and disaster recovery missions to first aid training and fire scene rescues. In an age of 140-character tweets and 24-hour cable news, the trove of material that filled a wing of several rooms of the Red Cross offices was a nostalgic look-back of a simpler, though no less generous, time of giving. Some of the items date back to the 19th century, spanning World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, the Great Molasses Flood in Boston and many other key points of history.
“Germans Licked West of the Rhine,” read one banner headline from a newspaper dated February 28, 1945. There was a note from a Vietnam soldier dated Dec. 22, 1968, thanking the unidentified Red Cross volunteer who sent him a holiday care package. “It is somewhat difficult for me to say what it means to know that there are people other than one’s own family who care for GIs,” he wrote in neat script. A package from home, he said, is often the one thing that makes a difference in a man’s will to live during times of war.
There was an article from the Red Cross News, dated July 1918, about a successful program to knit 90,000 pairs of socks for American soldiers fighting in Europe during World War I. “More knitters needed,” it said. There was a scrapbook from Hurricane Camille in 1969. Annual reports, bound in red leather with gold trim, dating from 1905-1974. Wartime ration books, carefully folded American flags, monogrammed silver tea services. There were pins and patches and dozens of uniforms in heavy wool and brass buttons, each with its own distinctive hat. There were books about the Geneva Convention, first aid training and disaster response. There was a needlepoint sampler, hand-stitched, dated 1918.
The black and white photos, spanning more than 100 years, were perhaps the most vivid reminder of a bygone era. They were in cardboard boxes and leather-bound albums, taped into worn scrapbooks and framed under glass. There were men in fedoras and nurses in starched white uniforms; blood drive publicity photos; volunteers wearing boutonnieres receiving awards for their service; second graders collecting Red Cross subscriptions, dated Jan. 2, 1941. There was a smiling Clara Barton, the Civil War nurse who founded the Red Cross in 1881, seated in a rocker. Some of the larger photos were stacked on tables and leaned up against the walls: a framed panoramic photo of a banquet from the American Red Cross’s 21st National Convention in Philadelphia, June 18-21, 1946.
“Every time you opened a box something new and fascinating would pop out,” said Sasha Goldberg, the Red Cross volunteer who carefully cataloged and photographed all of the items. “There are so many fascinating stories and we were able to find homes for everything so all of it could be properly displayed.”
Goldberg’s work took most of the summer leading up to the Red Cross’ move in late September.
Many of the items featuring Barton made their way to the Clara Barton Birthplace Museum in North Oxford. These included plates and cups with the Red Cross logo; three stained glass Red Cross panels; a pamphlet outlining services to the armed forces and veterans from 1881-1981; a report of New York and New England hurricanes and floods from 1938; assorted magazines and books from 1916-1939.
Goldberg put together a special box of memorabilia from V-J Day, Aug. 15, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered in World War II. Most of these items came from a longtime volunteer of the American Motor Corps, a group of intrepid women who transported wounded troops and supplies. The Motor Corps women, dressed in their trademark knee-high boots, have been an institution during both of the world wars as well as during the 1918 flu pandemic. In World War II alone, approximately 45,000 women of the Motor Corps logged more than 61 million miles, often using their own vehicles.1 Local Motor Corps women also helped out during the Molasses Flood of January 1919 in Boston’s North End, when a storage tank burst. Twenty-one people were killed and 150 injured as 2.3 million gallons of molasses streamed down the streets.
There was also dozens of old books about swimming, first aid and water safety, some dating back to the 19th century, which made their way to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. The Framingham History Center took home treasure, as did several Red Cross regional offices, the Tewksbury Public Health Museum and historical societies in Natick, Quincy and Weymouth.
Sara Goldberg (no relation to Sasha), an archivist with Historic Newton, collected several binders of photos, newspaper clippings and typewritten material about the Newton chapter of the Red Cross. Of particular note, she discovered details about the Junior Auxiliary, founded by Newton students in December 1917, which sewed clothing and bandages for soldiers in World War I. Other volunteers sewed rag doll toys for French children in need. “It helps us to understand Newton’s role in the larger events the Red Cross was involved in,” Goldberg said of the recovered treasure.
Lily Mysona, local history librarian at the Malden Public Library, took home five boxes of material, including one dedicated to Malden chapter memorabilia, one on the Motor Corps, black and white photos and a dozen old uniforms that could date back to the 1920s and 1930s.
Both Goldberg and Mysona are still poring through the material, weeks later.
“I love history,” Mysona said. “Sometimes it’s the stories about the individuals who draw you in. You see how people lived their lives, and what they gave back.”
- “Volunteer for Red Cross Motor Corps”. Virtual Museum of Public Service School of Public Affairs and Administration Rutgers University-Newark. Retrieved 23 December 2015.
Links to photographs of historical items:
Photographs from a display at the Volunteer Appreciation Day in Cambridge: https://www.flickr.com/gp/60784495@N07/1xmPso
General Items: https://www.flickr.com/gp/44966885@N00/zv7800
Selections from Malden’s items: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm29HEwU
Selections from Newton’s collection: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm6L93qN