Watch a film or read about the U.S. during WWI and expect to find due praise for the war efforts by American Red Cross. They mobilized the entire country in support of the troops; more than eight million civilians donated a dollar to join and that was just the beginning – volunteers spent countless hours sewing bandages and knitting items to comfort soldiers and war refugees. In April 1918 alone, the Santa Rosa chapter created 3,000 pieces including 275 pairs of socks, 860 abdominal bandages, 91 helmets (?) and 410 “helpless case shirts” for amputees.
People also turned out in support of the Red Cross itself. In Petaluma on May 20, 1918 there was a Red Cross parade where 3,500 marched behind the California Governor many of the women in nurse costumes. There was a giant flag, several floats including one dedicated just to sock knitters, and every schoolchild in town walked the half-hour route with their teachers. Leading the procession were sixteen young girls with oversized knitting needles and yarn bags pulling a replica of a sheep on a wagon – which could have symbolized either peace or the importance of knitting wool.
|Red Cross parade in Petaluma on May 20, 1918. (Photo: Sonoma county library)|
But during the war the Red Cross also became a critically-needed social welfare agency here at home, particularly during the Spanish Flu crisis (more about that here). As far as I can tell this history has been completely forgotten, documented only in the newspapers of the time. Although this isn’t the story of the national Red Cross Shop endeavor, here’s what happened in the heyday of the Santa Rosa and Petaluma shops, in all their patriotic, poignant – and sometimes puzzling – glory.
The concept only reached California after the United States entered the war in April, 1917 but had taken root earlier in Chicago and a few other places East. At face value it was merely a charity resale store but it went deeper than that – it was where neighbors helped another cope with rationing and wartime shortages by selling homemade and repurposed items of all sorts. They took in and sold anything and everything that came through the door and published want lists, all together giving us a unique glimpse of life here in the autumn of 1918.
The Petaluma store was the first to open that July, on one of the corners of Washington and Keller streets. While Petaluma was only opened on Saturdays, the Santa Rosa store at 428 Fourth st. (the middle of the block between A and B streets, now lost under the mall) was open six or seven days a week.
The mainstays of both shops were the same as any resale store today: Used clothing and shoes, but there was also high demand for adult underwear, probably because of the wartime wool shortage. In Santa Rosa they wanted “children’s underwear or things that can be made into it” and it was mentioned some were making children’s clothes from flannel scraps or men’s shirts.
It’s a surprise to learn they were selling lots of food: “If you have any extra vegetables in your war garden bring the surplus to the shop tomorrow…housewives, when you do your Saturday baking remember the Red Cross Shop.” They also sold perishables like milk, cottage cheese, eggs, butter and even meat; Petaluma offered “fine large dressed ducks” for $1.50.
That presumably put them in some competition with local grocers, but the Red Cross Shops went even further by selling livestock. On Egg Day, September 1, Petaluma announced “our latest donation is a fine live thirty-pound pig.” A couple of weeks later the shop had “two splendid hogs,” and “Henry J. Myers, the popular secretary has been appointed temporary guardian of the ‘hog pen’ and is grooming the animals to the best of his ability.”
Not to be bested, Santa Rosa offered live chickens and a while-you-wait butcher. After you picked out your hen, “Joe Ginotti rushed it to James Evans, manager of McCullough Produce Company, who killed and dressed it, while you wandered about choosing a certain pie or batch of doughnuts.”
The Santa Rosa shop even sold cats. A Persian angora kitten was advertised and another cat – donated, dumped or stray – was adopted (abducted?) by a five year-old girl, as told in a cute anecdote:
Then there is the cat. You know the one that caused all the excitement the other day. Well, that cat is wise, or very lucky. At any rate, it has a good home, now. Mrs. J. K. Edwards incautiously brought her small daughter to the Shop. Julia Catherine saw the villain, and, with true womanly spirit, demanded to have him for her own, to cherish for all time. Mrs Edwards objected, and saw a streak which was Julia and the cat, about a half block down the street. So the villain came out ahead after all. injustice triumphs. But Julia Catherine is happy. So is the villain —and what more is necessary? Thus endeth the Epic of the Cat.
Little Julia’s incautious mother was Florence, part of the remarkable Rockwell family. Several members can be found criss-crossing notable events in Santa Rosa’s history over the decades and even played a small role here. Most Red Cross Shops had a tea room; when the one opened in the Santa Rosa shop that October it was decorated with engravings by Carlo Gino Venanzi, the Italian artist brother-in-law of Florence, which were certainly worth far more than anything else in the shop.
Another funny story was told in the Press Democrat: “Mrs. Ronk, initiated into the selling department yesterday, was rather shocked when a man walked in and said: ‘Madam. I have been drinking; I have had a fight with an Indian; he tore my clothes off me; I want a pair of pants.’ With the assistance of Dr. Stevens he was properly clothed for the street.”
The stores also acted as an agent for people looking for specific items. Among the stuff wanted in Petaluma was a piano stool, small white beans, a brown untrimmed hat. In Santa Rosa the list included odd ends of ribbons, veil cases, red Pyracantha berries (at Christmas), clothespin aprons, bantam hens and Karo Corn Syrup buckets – which were like paint cans and are still found for sale on eBay and Etsy (hopefully empty of 100 year old syrup). One woman came in and wanted a headless doll.
Petaluma also came up with innovative ideas of things to sell. The shop asked for cabbage donations so the Domestic Science class at the high school could make “Liberty Cabbage” (sauerkraut) to sell at the shop. They also asked residents to “dig up your bulbs now; this is the time and bring them to the Red Cross Shop…you can buy ’em back if you really have to have them.”
|There are no known photos of the Santa Rosa or Petaluma Red Cross Shops, but this was an interior of a shop where the Red Cross chapter was about the same size as Santa Rosa’s. (Library of Congress)|
Santa Rosa’s finest hour came during the peak of the Spanish Flu epidemic of October-November. (The Petaluma shop was ordered closed for that month.) The whole town mobilized heroically, as described in the following article. The Red Cross Shop partnered with the restaurant in the nearby Occidental Hotel as the shop took soup and custard orders for the bedridden. Volunteers sewed and gave away an untold number of flu masks. And most importantly, they placed babies and small children who had sick parents in temporary homes.
The Petaluma shop reopened just before Thanksgiving and both shops began gearing up for an unusual Christmas. Petaluma’s high school manual training class made doll furniture. The motto in Santa Rosa was “Make Your Christmas Presents Out of Salvage” and enlisted teens and adults alike in painting and decorating boxes and unwanted furniture. More skilled hands made dollhouses and birdhouses and sewed or knitted lovely things.
Even though they didn’t launch until the war was almost over, the shops played a central role in involving civilians with the war effort by collecting materials wanted by the government such as foil from gum wrappers or cigarette packs, newsprint, rubber scraps and peach pits and walnut shells to make gas masks. Shops in both towns accepted thousands of pounds of clothing and shoes for the international Belgian Relief program.
The Santa Rosa Shop closed on Feb. 1 1919, having lost its free rent and not finding anyone volunteering to manage it. Petaluma stayed open but moved to 155 Kentucky street.
During those late months of 1918 the Argus and PD had some little item about the shops almost daily, obviously written by volunteers there, although sometimes they struggled to find things to write about. In Petaluma we learned “a musical cow bell attracted the public generally” and Peter Murphy came to donate a pile of fruit jars and all of his window shades. In Santa Rosa, Blanche Hoffer entertained with her accordion one afternoon as another woman tootled on a “soprano horn” which apparently just had been donated. It sounds like they had great fun, and many of the items are still fun to read today. A doggerel verse, “Down Fourth Street Row” is transcribed below and is a sweet tribute to the women and men who ran the places.
While few good things came out of the first World War, the Red Cross Shops certainly fall on the positive side. How great was it to have such spots in small towns where every day we could join the effort to help disabled soldiers and victims of war – while also getting a good deal on a few washrags, potatoes for tonight’s dinner… and maybe a kitten.
|Image from “What to do for Uncle Sam; a first book of citizenship” (1918)|
DOWN FOURTH STREET ROW
“I’ll tell thee everything I know,
Although it is not much –
I wandered down that Fourth Street row
Past stores, saloons and such.
I went until I saw a place
They called the Red Cross Shop;
Inside I saw a beaming face
And thought I’d better stop.
“What is this Red Cross Shop?” I said,
“And why these glowing smiles?”
The workers for the cross of red
Come many weary miles;
They gladly work, day after day.
And fix a tea room grand
For small Blanche with her gentle way,
To feed the hungry band.
But I was thinking of a plan
To make the floor look clean.
And hide it under so much bran
That it could not be seen.
So having no reply to give
To what I had been told.
I looked quite sternly positive
And said, “Why is this gold?”
Em’s accents mild took up the tale.
She said, “I go my ways
And when I find a gold band frail,
I bring it for the blaze.
I put it into this they call
The Red Cross Melting Pot –
They sell it – silver, gold and all —
And then it goes for shot.”
But I was thinking of a way
To open the Tea Room wide,
And so go on from day to day,
With lots of food inside.
“What is this Red Cross Shop?” I cried,
“And wherefore all these toys?”
Just gaze upon this fruit stand wide —
Oh! Those are for the boys!
I sometimes fix the grab-bag stock,
Or put the shoes in rows;
I sometimes sell an old, old clock,
And sort the Belgian’s clothes.
And that’s the way (she tried to wink)
In which our Shop gets rich;
And very gladly, I should think
Your old things here you’d pitch.
I heard her then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep from out that Shop the dust
By flooding it with brine.
I thanked her much for telling me
The way the Shop gets rich.
But chiefly for her wish that she
My old things here would hitch.
And now, if e’er by chance I wish
Some pictures — old or new –
Or madly seek a small blue dish,
Or tea of special brew,
Or if I drop upon mv toe
A very heavy weight,
I start! For it reminds me so
Of that Red Cross Shop that I know —
Whose Bess is mild, whose Blanche is slow,
Whose Emma’s face is all aglow,
Whose Anna croaked once like a crow,
Whose Verda off to ride did go,
Whose Helen ran the car so slow,
Whose Ira wandered to and fro
And muttered mumblingly and low
As if his mouth were full of dough;
Who sent the Belgians lots of clo’
One Sunday, not so long ago –
The Shop in Fourth street Row.
– Press Democrat, September 29 1918
RED CROSS CHRISTMAS SHOP HAS MANY USEFUL ARTICLES
Patriotic Women of City Are Busily Engaged in Preparing Articles for Sale at Red Cross Shop, Which Gets the Entire Proceeds, as There Is No Expense to the Shop.
There is only one thing that makes Christmas shopping difficult; the problem of knowing what to give and where to find it. The Red Cross Shop is solving that problem for you this year. Miss Blanch Hoffer is head of a corp of artistic workers who are getting the goods out for the opening, December 7. There you are going to he able to find dozens of worthwhile suggestions.
Mrs J. Warren Jenkens has gathered together a group of willing workers who are designing and making those things that every lovely woman likes to have many of such as boudoir caps, camisoles, aprons and bags.
Every afternoon five or six friends of Mrs. James Gray gather at her home on Spring street and devote their time to covering boxes of every size and shape with beautiful wallpaper. Beautiful boxes – such as these are, have a place in almost any room.
Miss Hoffer’s studio looks Just like Santa Claus’ workrooms. Each day more Christmas presents are finished and hidden away in boxes. Doll houses for little girls: bird houses for the spring gardens. Cookies concealed in such lovely painted boxes as Miss Hoffer has created will have a flavor all their own. Flowers arranged in the delicately decorated black glass bowls will be more attractive.
But what will be the most extraordinary part of this interesting dispiy is that all are made of salvage — to see what beautiful gift — can be purchased and yet comply with the spirit of the government’s request that everyone give useful, practical things. All articles made are immediately useful or wearable — excepting the children’s toys, which one the only non-useful things anyone ought to give and everything at the Shop is to he moderate in price.
There has been a request for two books — “Peck’s Bad Boy” and Beeton’s Geography, Biology and History. If you have these in your library and can spare them — there is someone to whom they will be of use.
– Press Democrat, November 27 1918