How could untrained women contribute to the war effort? This was the question the Red Cross was seeking the answer for in1917 when they sent two agents to Europe to investigate. One of the ideas that they returned with was knitting. The Red Cross put its head together with the Women’s Bureau and created standards and needs for knitting projects. There were determined to be four pieces which were in the most need that could be knitted by Americans. They were 1) an aviator’s helmet, 2) a hot water bottle cover, 3) a wash rag and 4) a pair of socks. Five hundred thousand pamphlets were created and circulated across America with directions and stipulations for creating these items to Red Cross standards. The wool had to be four-ply and grey or khaki in color. Along with the instructions the Red Cross also provided needles, yarn, and patterns. They also supplied emblems to be sewn into items that met their specific requirements. In addition to the standards of production, the Red Cross handled the distribution of the items Americans knitted to the military. Slogans such as “Knit Your Bit” and “We’ll do our share while you’re over there” appeared. The qualifying yarn was called “defender yarn”. Women’s magazines including the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and McCalls ran articles about knitting in relation to the war effort. The New York Times also promoted knitting. Soon a nationwide movement was underway. Groups of women would get dressed up and have a knitting tea while serving “Hoover” refreshments (snacks with conservation in mind) and knit together. Also, contests would be held that awarded the fastest knitter the winner. People worked at their knitting both at home and in social groups. Individuals in churches, women’s groups, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces spent 1917-1918 working together knitting for the Red Cross war relief effort. Knitting was considered acceptable in all settings. To have a knitting bag was a political statement and a badge of patriotism. It was very popular to knit and to learn to knit.
The greatest need was for socks. The First World War was fought under trench warfare conditions which meant that soldiers spent weeks or months in wet and in winter freezing conditions. Warm socks made a significant difference for American soldiers in the trenches or on the march in France. They wore boots called the 1917 Trench Boot which was made of heavy re-tanned cowhide with thick soles. Although in theory water-repellant, the boots quickly ripped out at the seams. The iron heels and five rows of hobnails hammered into the soles to prevent slipping conducted the cold from the frozen ground directly to the soldiers’ feet. Later, in 1918, an improved version called the Pershing Boot was used which added an extra sole with resulting extra warmth. In these new rigid boots, a soldier could not bend his foot so his feet remained cold, sore, and often wet. The boots were not insulated in any way so soldiers wore two pairs of thick wool socks which required them to wear boots two sizes larger than they normally wore. Between wear and tear and the important practice of changing socks often in order to avoid the fungus trench foot, there was a continuous need for warm wool socks.
Thanks lady for the socks you knit
I used one for a hammock and one for a mitt
And I pause, dear lady, to ask you this
Where in the hell did you learn to knit???
~ Poem by American Soldier
Sending off husbands, boyfriends and sons to war was stressful. Women were anxious about their loved ones overseas. Knitting provided an outlet to divert this anxiety in a positive way. Pictures of women knitting contained an emotional charge. From women who lived in major cities to women who lived in isolated areas, they all knitted for the soldiers. Individuals who were part of the knitting campaign stated they felt they did something to help the war effort, that they alleviated suffering, and that they were calmed by the act of knitting. The Native American community was involved in large numbers with the Red Cross and knitting was a way that they were involved. Over five-thousand Native American adults and over thirty-thousand Native American students were involved in Red Cross projects. Even men learned to knit and participated by making items for the war effort. Wounded soldiers also knitted while they were recovering. Invitations to join the “Keep Them Warm League” were seen in publications. In the 19+ months that the US was involved in WWI, 24 million knitted pieces were donated by the American public.
We are the women, keeping thought away
By this new work of love, this eager gift
Through which our men, facing bitter fight
Under the stars of foreign lands
Shall know that still a million women’s hands
Uphold them in the darkness and the night.
~ Kathleen Norris, The Evening Independent 1918
Knitting became a patriotic obsession and soon artists became involved. Cartoonists drew people knitting for posters, postcards, magazine covers, illustrations and sheet music covers. Paper dolls were created about knitting. Photographers took pictures of people knitting. Poets wrote knitting poetry for contests, submitted poems to magazines, and poems were published on knitting tool packaging as well as for printing on knitting bags. Many knitting songs were created. Plays were written to be presented at knitting bees and other venues. Authors included knitting stories in their novels. Hats and badges were designed with knitting or relief society themes which enabled people to display their dedication even when not knitting. Students of all ages became involved with knitting at their schools.
It was well understood that knitting contributions met an important need. While he was president, Herbert Hoover dedicated a new American Red Cross Headquarters building in Washington, D. C. to the contributions of women during WWI. It listed the knitted items of each category in the citation. Nevertheless, the national accomplishment was achieved only by the work of people involved on the local level. What was happening in Miami County, Indiana with regard to knitting during WWI?
Do you belong to the wool brigade?
If not, then come along.
Mothers, wives and maidens
Make this Army strong.
Gray Wool is our ammunition;
Some make it into balls
Pass them to the knitting squad;
They will soon use them all.
For this is no time to be idle
And sit with folded hands,
Pick up your knitting whenever you’re sitting.
A sock soon grows under your hand.
Hark! I hear the bugle call.
Someone wants another ball.
- National Special Aide Society for American Preparedness, Inc. (SASAP, also known as Allies Special Aid)
Jessie F. Benham Kenny and Leona May Mercer Tudar were friends who had served together on many committees at the local Baptist Church. They stepped up to the plate to co-chair the local Miami County Indiana American Red Cross Knitting Department. These two women were very successful in the knitting department and supplied the entire county with work. They obtained three knitting machines and met not only Red Cross requirements but requests from “local boys” for items. Local newspaper articles from July of 1917 through November of 1918 paint a picture of the place knitting had in Miami County, Indiana during the First World War. On July 2, 1917, the newspaper reports a knitting group that was separate from the Red Cross called Knitting Socks For Soldiers. It was related to the Council of Defense and Mrs. Jessie Hollenshade West (Richland Township, Chili) was county leader. This group was not listed in the committee report for the Miami County America Red Cross but undoubtedly also made a fine contribution to the war effort. The state of Indiana was expected to have 4,000 pairs of socks ready by September 1 for winter delivery to Europe. The group, Knitting Socks for Soldiers, declared itself separate and apart from the Red Cross although the newspaper explained that in many ways the Women’s Council of Defense and the Red Cross work together and the two groups had a close relationship. In mid-August, the newspaper reported that the mayor had received a telegram asking for knitted articles for the Red Cross. The local chapter was to furnish 300 sweaters, 300 mufflers, 300 pairs of wristbands, and 300 pairs of socks. Items were needed to be in Europe prior to winter. On August 22 the newspaper printed a letter addressed to the local Red Cross from the Fort Wayne regional district office praising them on the high quality of the work they had sent in. Early in September the local newspaper reported that the National Red Cross was asking for 1500 knitted items before winter from Miami County. Adjusted hours were announced at the Red Cross Shop for women to pick up supplies and receive instructions. A knitting party was reported at the home of Mrs. C.H. Brownell. Lunch was served and women spent the afternoon knitting together for the Red Cross. On November 23 it was announced that Max Gunzberger donated a knitting machine to the Miami County Red Cross. And by the end of November, the Red Cross began to be open on Saturday afternoon in addition to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The workshop was located in the Colonial Flats.
The local newspapers continued to report on the knitting committee’s progress in 1918. February 23 brought an appeal to women to stop making wristlets, sweaters, and helmets and concentrate on making socks because it would be spring before what they are working on in February would reach the soldiers. Other items were to resume being knitted before fall. Twice during July of 1918, the newspaper announced the arrival of yarn for the Red Cross sweaters, socks, and helmets. It went on to explain that by the beginning1st of September the totals needed for shipment were 1700 pair of socks, 450 sweaters, and 200 helmets. As a result of this need knitting rooms were going to be open every day. On September 20 the newspaper reported that 1700 pairs of socks had been sent from the local Red Cross chapter to the state headquarters. Unfortunately, a delay in receiving yarn supplies has delayed helmet and sweaters from being ready. On October 1, 1918, it was announced that knitting rooms of the local Red Cross only would be open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon until further notice. After the armistice, on November 23, 1918, the newspaper announced that yarn supplies had arrived and appealed to everyone to help due to the fact that many of the prior sweaters and socks had been given to flu victims resulting in the need of a new supply.
Under the direction of Jessie Kenny and May Tudar, the Miami County Red Cross made 6965 knitted items during WWI. Who were they, where did they come from and what happened to them after WWI?
I am so placid as I sit
In train or tram and knit and knit
Within the house I give due heed
To every duty, each one’s need.
Sometimes the news boys hurry by,
And then my needles seem to fly
And when the house has grown quite still,
I lean out on my window sill -
And pray to God to see to it
That I keep sane enough to knit.
~ N. Robertson
On August 11, 1856, Jessie F. Benham was born in South Byron, New York. 1860 found her family still living in Byron, New York and by then Jessie had three sisters and her father was a farmer. There were two farm laborers and a servant living with the Benham family. By 1870 the family was still living in New York but Jessie’s father was no longer present and there were four sisters and two farm laborers living in the home. Jessie fell in love and married another New York native, George W. Kenny on May 26, 1875. In 1881 the couple moved with their daughter Katherine to Peru, Indiana. In 1900 Jessie and George were living in Peru with Katherine and two nephews. George worked as a bank teller. In 1910 their nephews no longer lived there, however two roomers lived in their home. At this time George was a bookkeeper in a department store. 1920 finds Jessie and George living in Peru, however George had become a bookkeeper in an office. In 1930 George and Jessie were still Peru residents. George had become a bookkeeper in the bank business, and by this time they owned their home. Jessie was a founding member of Peru Art Club. She was president of Associated Charities, a member of the League of Women Voters, a member of Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a member of the Women’s Literary Club and past president of Baptist Missionary Society. She was a member of the Baptist Church. In 1937, Jessie F. Kenny passed away at her home. She died of heart attack and was buried Mount Hope Cemetery in Peru, Indiana.
In 1845 a young man named Moses Mercer moved with his father’s family to Peru, Indiana from Ohio. Moses was born in Virginia. He was trained as a millwright but became a carpenter instead. Moses worked for the railroad. He married Ann Long. Ann was born in Delaware but her family had relocated to Logansport, Cass County, Indiana. On August 30, 1859, Moses and Ann’s daughter, Leona May Mercer was born. Two years later, in 1861, Moses and Ann had a son named William Schuylar Mercer. By 1870 the family consisted of Leona May, who was called May, her parents, three brothers and a sister. They raised their family in the Baptist Church and remained in Peru. In 1880 May’s brother worked in a dry goods store. Eventually, May fell in love and on February 9, 1881, she married Avery P. Tudor who was a dry goods salesman. During their marriage, May gave birth to two daughters which they named Bessie and Mary. Tragedy struck May in 1886 when she lost her mother. Her father moved in with May and Avery but he too passed away in 1899. May and her husband remained in Peru while Avery moved up to a manager position at the department store where he worked. By 1930 Avery made a career change and managed a tire service station. May lost Avery in 1935. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Peru. Nine years later Leona May Mercer Tudor passed away at the Baptist Home in Illinois. Her body was returned home and she was buried by her husband in Mount Hope Cemetery, Peru, Indiana.
Jessie and May were very successful managers of the Knitting Department of the Miami County Indiana American Red Cross during WWI. But clearly, the women of Miami County worked together to “knit their bit”. What follows is a list of some of the women who are recognized as contributing to the knitting department. While every effort was made to find their full names it was not possible to do so in every instance.
Emma J Milice Brackenridge (Mrs. G. J.)
Mrs. K. N. Huhlfield
Eva Hostetler Millhouse (Mrs. Clifford)
Mrs. Mary Binkard
Mary Pearl Simmons Vance (Mrs. Charles)
Irena Sunday Ream (Mrs J H)
Ruby Louise Augur Alexander (Mrs William)
Maude Reed Harrison (Mrs Charles)
Mrs. N. C. Arthur
Frances (Fanny) G Rooney ( Mrs Robert)
Helen Martha Royse Shirk (Mrs Joseph)
Mollie Hahn Bohn (Mrs David)
Alta May Phelps (Mrs Frank C)
Mrs. B. P. Kling
Written, researched and submitted by Mary Rohrer Dexter
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Unknown. Knitting Supervisors. Peru, Indiana. Photograph of WWI Knitting Department - Red Cross - local women
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