Red Cross Fundraising Quilts

The US government formed the War Camp Community Service in 1917 to coordinate activities of non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross. Known for its role in providing comfort to military members in Newport News and at installations across the country, volunteers were key to raising funds and morale among the troops.

Soon after America entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson issued a rousing call for the American people to “Do Your Bit for America.” He encouraged all citizens to get involved and help raise funds to support the war effort. He pointed out the importance of the work being done by the American Red Cross who let it be known: “We cannot serve in the trenches, but we can all serve at home.” Volunteers across the land began knitting socks, making surgical dressings for the boys “over there,” and sewing handmade quilts to raffle off. The quilts became a popular means of raising funds, and are recognized as one of the most significant charitable efforts of the 20th century.

The Modern Priscilla, December 1917. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Library, Smithsonian Libraries.
The Modern Priscilla, December 1917. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Library, Smithsonian Libraries.

In December 1917, The Modern Priscilla magazine, one of the preeminent women’s publications of the time, published an article titled Wartime Activities of Significance to Women.” A quilt pattern, designed by Clara Washburn Angell, was featured. The magazine encouraged women to conduct quilt campaigns that could raise “one thousand dollars for the Red Cross” that would go a long way toward the purchase of ambulances, emergency equipment and yarn. These quilts became known as Red Cross Quilts.

"Wartime Activities of Significance to Women," The Modern Priscilla, December 1917. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Library, Smithsonian Libraries.
“Wartime Activities of Significance to Women,” The Modern Priscilla, December 1917. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History Library, Smithsonian Libraries.

Although women in communities across the country contributed hundreds of these commemorative and fundraising quilts during the war years, they are quite rare today.


The Greene County, Virginia, Red Cross Fundraising Quilt

Among the artifacts on view in the Museum’s World War I exhibition, Answering America’s Call, is a circa 1918 quilt, on loan from the Greene County Historical Society. Although this quilt holds many mysteries – for example, it is not known how much money was raised by this effort – it nevertheless tells a great deal about the community where it was made.

Red Cross Quilt, ca. 1918. Courtesy of Greene County Historical Society.
Red Cross Quilt, ca. 1918. Courtesy of Greene County Historical Society.

The quilt top (it is not backed or quilted) measures 82 inches square; it is made of red and white cotton, with red cotton embroidery. Probably constructed in early 1918, it adheres fairly closely to the pattern published by the American Red Cross in the December 1917 issue of The Modern Priscilla. There are 185 squares, embroidered with the names of hundreds of Greene county residents. As instructed in the magazine article, the Red Cross Auxiliary ‘sold’ squares and spaces that were inscribed with the names of the contributors.

The embroidery (and most likely the piecing) were almost certainly the work of Miss Senannie Beaty, who was well known throughout her life as a force for good in her community. The center square carries Miss Senannie’s name (S. R. Beaty) as well as those of her brother, John Owen Beaty, and the aunts with whom she and her brother had lived since childhood, Adeline Cornelia Simms and Elizabeth Davis Simms. Miss Senannie was much loved in her community, living a long life in service to it. She died on her 95th birthday in 1987.

Undated photograph of Miss Senannie Beaty in front of her home with Thomas Edward Johnson, editor of the Greene County Record in the 1960s. Photograph by Julie Dickey. Courtesy of Greene County Historical Society.
Undated photograph of Miss Senannie Beaty in front of her home with Thomas Edward Johnson, editor of the Greene County Record in the 1960s. Photograph by Julie Dickey. Courtesy of Greene County Historical Society.

The quilt top includes most, if not all, of the recognizable names in the county such as Senator N. B. Early, whose name appears ten times; and that of his wife, Susan B. Early, twice. The families in these tightly knit communities here at home were much in the thoughts of their sons and husbands and neighbors fighting in Europe. Letters in the Greene County Historical Society’s collection share some of these connections. A letter sent from France dated October 30, 1918, written by Bledsoe Parrott to his mother, states: “I am anxious to see Nim Early. I haven’t heard how he came out yet, all right I hope.” Parrott is referring to Richard Nimrod “Nim” Early, son of Senator and Mrs. Early. In April 1917, Nim volunteered for the Monticello Guard and was transferred to the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, known as the Blue-Gray Division. Both Parrott and Early fought in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, which began on September 26, 1918, and was fought until Armistice Day. Thankfully, both men survived, and in September 1921, Parrott married Nim’s sister, Mary.

Including duplicates, a total of 749 names are embroidered on the quilt top. There are around 530 individuals. Many of the large squares were bought by the owners of businesses, such as R. N. Stephens, owner of a large store in Quinque, and the Dulaney family, whose store was located in Ruckersville.

Courtesy of Greene County Historical Society.
Courtesy of Greene County Historical Society.

Greene, one of the smallest counties in the Commonwealth, remains very rural, tucked under the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. During the World War I era, many small villages and farms were quite isolated. The names on the quilt cluster somewhat in the area along and north of what was then known as the Gordonsville Pike, the road from Richmond and Gordonsville through Stanardsville and over the mountains at Swift Run Gap into the Shenandoah Valley. Other parts of the county had much less to do with Stanardsville and even less with Ruckersville in the east. Eight miles separate the county seat, Stanardsville, from the hamlet of Dyke in the southernmost section that abuts Albemarle County. The Greene County Historical Society’s collection includes Minutes of the Red Cross Auxiliary’s activities in the Dyke and Nortonsville area. Curiously, these Minutes do not have a single mention of this fundraising quilt. To the contrary, for the ladies of the Dyke Auxiliary, ‘Wartime Activities of Significance to Women’ consisted of much fundraising on their own account as well as spending countless hours with needles and thread. These Minutes describe church socials, theatrical events and other activities, with money raised being spent on supplies for knitting bandages and socks, and for making and mending hospital shirts to benefit the Stanardsville Red Cross Chapter, funding refugee support activities in Europe.

US World War I poster, ca. 1917-1918. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
US World War I poster, ca. 1917-1918. Courtesy of Library of Congress. (89710295)

In this community, as in so many others, historical records often depend on the local newspaper, and its availability many decades later. Greene’s weekly, the Greene County Record, has been published since 1914. Although microfilms and other forms of the newspaper exist from the early 1920s on, sadly, it seems there are few copies of the issues between 1914 and 1919. So despite the fact that the quilt and its money-raising would undoubtably have made the news in 1918, no details are known.

Greene County and its Historical Society are fortunate to have the quilt in its collection. It apparently did not leave Miss Senannie’s possession after the money was raised. It was displayed at her church in Ruckersville for some years and in the early 1960s, she gave it as a Christmas gift to Mr. and Mrs. Waddell Updike of Charlottesville. In turn, they gave it to the Historical Society in 1986, believing that it belonged in the county where it was made. Miss Senannie, who was born on April 3, 1892, died on her birthday in 1987. There is no doubt that she would be pleased that the generosity this quilt portrays is being appreciated by so many today.

Red Cross Quilts Make News
About the Greene County Historical Society Museum

The museum is located at 360 Main Street in Stanardsville, in a house that, during the first half of the 20th century, was the home of the Bickers family. At least one member of the family ‘bought’ a square on the Red Cross Fundraising Quilt. But it is unknown whether the name ‘M. B. Bickers’ belonged to Mattie B., Mollie B., or Myron B. Bickers.

The museum is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and by appointment. Its exhibits aim to illustrate life in rural Virginia over the years, including the First World War era. Visit http://www.greenehistory.org and https://www.facebook.com/greenehistoryva or call 434-985-1834.


Sources

Greene County Historical Society. Images of America: Greene County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013.

Reich, Sue. World War I Quilts. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Limited, 2014.

—. “Quilt History: Layer by Layer, World War I Quilts,” Accessed 11-01-2018. http://www.coveringquilthistory.com/quilts-of-world-war-i.php.