Knitting, rolling bandages, quilt raffles (and $5,000 wool): Nebraska’s WWI homefront

A thousand people attended the Red Cross Day event in Wahoo on July 4, 1918. (Photo courtesy Saunders County Museum)
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May 17, 2018 - 6:45am

The U.S. wasn’t prepared to enter World War I. That left those back home in Nebraska and other states with a lot of work to do a century ago.

In 1918 the good folks of Saunders County, Nebraska spent $5,000, the equivalent of $90,000 today, for two pounds of wool. Enough to maybe make a baby blanket or scarf.

Saunders County Museum curator Erin Hauser. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


A World War I fundraising quilt at the Saunders County Museum. “If you wanted your name on the quilt, you probably paid a nickel. Then they stitched onto the quilt the names and then they raffled off the quilt,” Hauser explained. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Sheep graze the White House lawn during World War I. Saunders County had the highest bid in the country for two pounds of wool from these sheep, $5,000, as part of a Red Cross fundraiser. (Library of Congress photo)


A parade was part of Red Cross Day in Wahoo, July 4, 1918. (Saunders County Museum photo)


A Red Cross uniform on display at the Saunders County Museum. "They probably wore that every time that they did any sort of Red Cross type work," Hauser said. "(It) probably made them feel like they were actually more a part of something, they belonged to that organization and they were showing their support by dressing up in the outfit." (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Text from a Red Cross poster titled “To You Who Can Stay at Home.” (Saunders County Museum image)


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It was more about passion for the war effort than a bag of wool, though. During World War I, sheep were used to “mow” the White House lawn to save manpower. The Red Cross had an idea. Sheer the sheep, send two pounds of wool to each state and let places bid on it to raise money for the war.

“Saunders County decided they wanted the wool for Nebraska,” Saunders County Museum curator Erin Hauser said. “They went up to $5,000 and they got the wool for Nebraska. And that happened to be the highest in the entire country. The next closest was Boston with $2,000.”

Just one example of a huge homefront effort in America to support a huge war in Europe that the United States and Nebraska wasn’t ready for.

“It was the first major war we'd ever been truly involved in since we didn't become a state until after the Civil War,” said Peru State College history professor Sara Crook.

“It wasn't just arms, it wasn't just munitions and guns and ammunition, it was clothing,” Chadron State College social sciences professor David Christensen said. “The United States was extremely ill-prepared to fight this war.”

Hauser gave me a tour of the World War I homefront display at the Saunders County Museum, where there were lots of examples of what was happening here while soldiers where over there. Items like a large white quilt, with a blue border and names stitched in red.

“So if you wanted your name on the quilt, you probably paid a nickel. Then they stitched onto the quilt the names and then they raffled off the quilt,” Hauser explained. “This was an interesting way to get around some of the ideas at the time. There were some churches that didn't believe in raffles or gambling or that sort of thing, and so they kind of got around it as this was a fundraiser for the war effort.”

Hauser showed pictures of another Wahoo fundraiser. Dressed in their finest, a thousand people and almost as many flags on a muddy main street on July 4, 1918 for Red Cross Day. “A flea market, a garage sale,” Hauser said. “They raffled off four cars that had been donated. Even today that's a big deal to get a car. They held parades. They had a band play, and they had speakers come and talk. Yeah, it was quite an event.”

Fundraisers, buying war bonds or war savings stamps. Giving to the war effort was expected, organized down to a level that utilized local school districts. Hauser said Saunders County alone contributed $7 million, about half of each person’s yearly income.

But the homefront effort involved more than money. Christensen said a big part of that was volunteering with the Red Cross, which had a statewide presence in communities big and small. “The Red Cross work, one of the biggest campaigns was assembling bandages. They needed bandages in Europe. The Red Cross would have quotas. Each county would have quotas to meet on how many surgical dressings would be required.

“The other big area that the Red Cross was involved, which is kind of hard to think about, was knitting,” Christensen added. “Knitting winter hats, mittens, sweaters, any sort of wool knitting. That became central to the Red Cross campaign as well. To where the women, no matter the town or city, big or small across Nebraska, there would be knitting groups and knitting drives where people would try to knit as quickly as they could. But what was unique about knitting was there was really no age limit on it. Young girls, if they knew how to knit, they could participate. Elderly who knew how to knit, they could participate.”

Christensen says in February 1918 the Omaha Red Cross chapter sent its largest shipment overseas. It included 30,560 bandages, 7,000 sweaters and 5,000 pairs of socks.

“It's kind of hard to think about today, yes, we're going to send these guys to Europe and they don't even have wool mittens or a hat,” Christensen said.

“A lot of women became involved in the Red Cross,” Hauser said. “It was an early way for women to become involved in the war effort. During World War II, we saw more of women getting involved in working outside of the home and in factories. But during World War I, there wasn't nearly as much of that.”

Panhandle-based History Nebraska (formerly the Nebraska State Historical Society) historic sights coordinator and historian Sandra Reddish found other signs of the effort while scouring through old copies of Ladies’ Home Journal magazine.

“I think in every issue, there's something about what you can do,” Reddish said. “Like knit. Or what can you bake and send to your boys overseas or the boys in camp. And how can you economize? And of course, because that was another tool for the war, is food. And so what you can raise. Of course, the meatless Mondays and Wednesdays. And then starting the rationing. So it was an all-out effort. Everything was for the war.”

All this was driven by a sense of patriotism, a desire to support loved ones in the trenches and a lot of propaganda.

Songs (like one titled “What Are You Going to Do to Help the Boys”), pamphlets and posters. Some encouraging, with slogans like “sow the seeds of victory.” Some a bit blunt, like the Red Cross poster Hauser showed me at the Saunders County Museum with the title “To You Who Can Stay at Home.”

One portion of the poster reads “You stay at home, another goes to fight in your defense. You sleep in a warm, snug bed; another in a mud-sodden trench. You awake to a peaceful sunrise; another to the roar of a shell.

“’You sleep and another dies crying for mother. But you do your bit and you do it cheerfully,’” Hauser continued, reading the poster. “So yeah, it was putting a cheery spin, I guess, on asking people for money.”

“Everybody was more or less willing to go along with it,” Reddish said.

It was all a big effort that helped an unprepared country get through the so-called “war to end all wars.”

And helped it be better prepared when the next came around.



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