1919 Presidential Proclamation to Schoolchildren about the

Red Cross


Lee Ann Potter

In September 1917, five months following the entrance of the United States into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson, who was president not only of the United States, but also of the American National Red Cross, officially announced the formation of the Junior Red Cross. He asked American youth, “Is not this perhaps the chance for which you have been looking to give your time and efforts in some measure to meet our national needs?” They responded most positively. During the war, while nearly five million American men served in the nation’s armed forces, more than eleven million schoolchildren across the country enrolled in the Junior Red Cross and did their part for the war effort.

The American National Red Cross was successfully organized by Clara Barton in 1881 as a humanitarian organization modeled after the International Red Cross and led by volunteers. Chartered by Congress in 1905, its mission is to provide relief to victims of disaster and to help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies. In the 1890s, discussions about organizing a nationwide “junior society” began, but it was not until 1917 that American Red Cross officials and educators planned for a nationwide partnership between schools and the Red Cross.

Schools were the unit of organization for this new program. Any school, public, private, or parochial, was enrolled as a school auxiliary by pledging to participate in the work of the Red Cross by contributing funds, producing Red Cross supplies, or engaging in other Red Cross activities. During the war, it was understood that each school auxiliary was responsible for raising a sum equal to 25 cents for each pupil in the school.

Members of the Junior Red Cross, working under the supervision of teachers, contributed to the war effort by producing hospital supplies, making bandages and surgical dressings, making and collecting clothing for war victims, building hospital furniture for use in camps and hospitals in the United States and abroad, working in Victory Gardens, and fundraising. Their efforts were calculated by the Red Cross as equal to ten percent of the value of all Red Cross products created during wartime. And Junior Red Cross contributions to Red Cross funds during the war totaled more than $3.6 million.

At the end of the war, the need for the Junior Red Cross became less apparent to some people, and some argued that the entire Red Cross should quit operations until another armed conflict arose. Red Cross leaders, however, were confident in the organization’s value and oriented the Red Cross toward disaster relief, public health efforts, and continuing service to veterans. Young people across the country were again encouraged by President Wilson to join the Junior Red Cross. In his proclamation to schoolchildren of the United States (featured here), Wilson explained the benefits of membership as they related to good citizenship: “It is your generation which must carry on the work of our generation at home and abroad and you cannot begin too soon to train your minds and habits for this responsibility.”

The program that Wilson alluded to in his proclamation was one whose objectives matched the motto of the Junior Red Cross, “I Serve.” It aspired to develop a generation of unselfish, service-rendering individuals. Supporting materials from the historical files of the Red Cross referred specifically to “character education” and emphasized the value of the program’s ability to instill a motive behind the work that children do. The program was also intended to teach both educators and students about the interconnectivity and interdependency of the world. One report insisted, “The spirit of service and sacrifice fostered during the war should not be lost.”

The Junior Red Cross did continue after the war. Its efforts continued to support orphanages and educational and recreational programs in Europe and a variety of programs in the United States. Chapters raised funds to pay surgical expenses for handicapped children, helped establish children’s wards in hospitals, began early recycling campaigns to turn salvage materials into funds for local charities, and undertook school and community beautification projects. Members canned jellies for the sick, made candies for children who rarely had them, sewed clothing for families in need, built furniture for refugees, created toys for orphanages, made hospital and nursing supplies, decorated holiday cards, and made scrapbooks for veterans. They held fundraising events, including bake sales and bazaars, in which they sold items that they had made. They organized clothing and food drives and established correspondence projects with young people in other countries. Many of these activities were described in the Junior Red Cross News, the first of several monthly publications issued to member chapters by Red Cross Headquarters beginning in 1919.

In the 1930s, membership in the Junior Red Cross fluctuated between 6.6 and 9 million. Response to the Great Depression and the drought in the Midwest dominated chapter activities. During World War II, however, membership soared from 8.5 million in 1940 to nearly 20 million in 1945, due in part to the formation of college chapters. Activities during World War II were similar to earlier efforts, but included, for the first time, recruitment of blood donors.

Membership declined significantly after World War II for a number of reasons. Other youth organizations, including the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the YMCA, were on the rise, as was teacher involvement in other extracurricular activities. Also, a 1956 Red Cross study revealed that many young people thought the Junior Red Cross was “mostly for girls” and that young people wanted more significant projects to work on. In October 1964, in an attempt to overcome the reluctance of young people to be categorized as “juniors,” the organization’s name was changed to Red Cross Youth. In the 1970s, Red Cross Youth was replaced by Youth Services, which integrated young people into chapter programs at all levels of the American Red Cross.


Teaching Activities

• Distribute copies of the document to students or project it on an overhead. Ask one student to read it aloud while the others follow along. Lead a class discussion by posing the following questions: What type of document is it? What is the date of the document? Who were the intended recipients? Who created it? For what purpose? What war is the writer referring to? Which of the Fourteen Points does Wilson allude to in the proclamation?


• If your school existed between 1917 and 1945, and yearbooks or school newspapers from that era are available for student use, direct students to conduct research to determine whether a chapter of the Junior Red Cross was active in your building. Ask students to investigate the types of activities that their predecessors engaged in and to write an article for the current school newspaper.


• Direct students to interview individuals in the community who were enrolled in elementary or secondary school between 1917 and 1945. Instruct students to prepare questions ahead of time related to activities that the interviewee was engaged in during the world wars and the Great Depression, including a question about whether he or she was involved in the Junior Red Cross. Invite student volunteers to share their interviews with the class.


• Divide students into small groups and assign each group a different youth service organization. Examples include the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the YMCA, and the Key Club. Ask students to research the history, objectives, and activities of their organization and direct them to write a one-page proclamation as though they were the president of their organization seeking new members.


• Inform students that in recent years, character education and service learning have received a great deal of attention in education circles. Direct students to read the NCSS Position Statement on Character Education (available online at www.ncss.org/standards/positions/character.html) and the National Education Association’s 2000-2001 Resolution concerning Service Learning and Community Service (available at www.nea.org/resolutions/00/00b-29.html). Ask students to compare the descriptions from these two documents with the description of the Junior Red Cross contained in the featured document. Lead a class discussion on the similarities and differences.


• On the chalkboard, write Wilson’s statement, “It is your generation which must carry on the work of our generation at home and abroad and you cannot begin too soon to train your minds and habits for this responsibility.” Ask students to write one paragraph explaining whether they agree or disagree.


Note to the Teacher

The document and images featured in this article come from the Records of the American National Red Cross. They are part of Donated Materials Group ANRC, and are held in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Additional documents and teaching ideas related to the home-front during World War I are available in World War I—The Home Front, a teaching packet developed by the National Archives education staff and published by ABC-Clio. For ordering information, visit www.abc-clio.com. More information about the American National Red Cross and its history is available on the organization’s website at www.redcross.org.


Lee Ann Potter is an education specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington, D.C. She serves as the editor for Teaching With Documents, a regular department of Social Education. For more information, write, call, or e-mail the education staff at NARA, NWE, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740; 301-713-6274; education@nara.gov.