Smithsonian in Wartime

Find out how the Smithsonian shared its expertise, staff, and funds during times of national crisis.

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WWI: Mobilizing for the War Effort

Even before the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, the conflict in Europe was front and center in the minds of many Americans who wanted to do their part. The employees of the Smithsonian were no exception. Through their own Red Cross auxiliary, applying their expertise to the war effort, and making changes in their private lives, Smithsonian employees took action to make a difference in the war effort.

The Red Cross Auxiliary

Helen Munroe, Chairman of the Smithsonian Red Cross auxiliary at her desk in the Publications Room.

In early June 1917, with Europe already devastated by three years of fighting, the employees of the Smithsonian organized a Red Cross auxiliary to aid the war effort in Europe.1 The auxiliary’s first meeting, held on June 4, enrolled 109 members. They supported the Red Cross’s work by collecting ten cents a week from the men of the auxiliary and creating material to be donated to the Washington DC Chapter of the Red Cross.2 Their first large project was to raise $1000 dollars to purchase an ambulance for the front.3 Enthusiasm for this project was felt across the Smithsonian as over half of the funds were raised in the first week of the campaign.4 By the end of August, just three months after the auxiliary was founded and five weeks after their fundraising campaign began, the Red Cross auxiliary voted to turn over $1,006 dollars to the American Red Cross for an ambulance. The additional six dollars above the initial amount were allocated for a plaque reading “Presented by the Employees of the Smithsonian Institution.”5 The American Red Cross sent the ambulance to the front in Russia and was able to equip it with all the necessary supplies and spare parts to provide for its upkeep – a necessary addition in wartime conditions.

Fundraising wasn’t the only contribution the Red Cross auxiliary made to the War effort. From its first days, members made up material to be sent to soldiers6 and organized lectures to educate about the war in Europe.7 By November, the Red Cross auxiliary was looking for more knitters and sewers to join its ranks as “there is a need for every kind of knitted good.”8 Auxiliary Chairman Helen Munroe, the head of the Publications Room in her daily work at the Smithsonian, coordinated the efforts of the Red Cross auxiliary: recruiting new members in the employee newsletter, distributing materials, and collecting finished mittens, scarves, sweaters and over 1,600 sewn items.9 She worked with Mrs. B. C. Shuman, the treasurer of the auxiliary and a secretary in the Natural History Building,10 to keep the auxiliary running and coordinate the auxiliary’s efforts in addition to their full time work as Smithsonian employees.

The Red Cross auxiliary’s efforts continued after the war ended. In 1919, the auxiliary still had over 120 members11 and was continuing to send badly needed knitted articles to women and children abroad. In July the Red Cross auxiliary donated fifty dollars towards a bed sponsored by the Washington, DC Chapter at the American Memorial Hospital in Reims, France.12

Helping Naval Intelligence

Letter from Captain Roger Welles to Charles D. Walcott, January 4, 1918 In early April 1917, Loring W. Beeson, who previously worked as a photographer at the US Department of Agriculture, brought his knowledge to the Smithsonian as photographer for the US National Museum.13 Within the year, the Office of Naval Intelligence asked Beeson for his photographic expertise.14 Secretary Charles D. Walcott, concerned about Beeson’s workload, approved the assistance, but made sure there would be compensation if it took up too much of Beeson’s time.15 The Navy assured Walcott Beeson’s role would be an advisory capacity only; it was his expertise, not his time, which Naval Intelligence needed.16 Yet, at the end of that year, Beeson reported “a considerable portion of [his] time was taken up in connection the war activities assigned.”17 It seems the Navy was not alone in thinking highly of Beeson’s work as other branches also applied for and received photographic advice from Beeson useful in  war activities. While Beeson was hopeful his work would result “in the obtaining of valuable material for the photographic collections,” no record of these accessions has been found.18 

US Food Administration Pledges

U.S. Food Administration Pledges, Charwomen in Natural History Building Smithsonian employees not only supported the war effort at work, but in their daily lives as well. One of the war initiatives that made the biggest impact on American’s daily life was the work of the US Food Administration, a government agency set up to promote the conservation of foods in short supply and needed for soldiers abroad. The Food Administration’s efforts included the creation of meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays and efforts to reduce the consumption of dairy and fats.

Herbert Hoover, future President and then head of the US Food Administration, wrote to the Smithsonian asking all employees to follow the recommendations of the administration.19 Americans were asked to conserve wheat, meat, fats, and sugars; ingredients that provided lots of energy and calories to soldiers and refugees in Europe. By eating one wheat-less meal a day or meat at only one meal, more of America’s food production could be sent abroad. Americans were encouraged to replace these foods with fruits, vegetables, and fish; ingredients that were abundant, locally available, and hard to ship and store.

Richard Rathbun, Assistant Secretary and Director of the US National Museum, forwarded this request on to each department asking them to report how many people pledged to follow Hoover’s recommendations. Pledge sheets show employees from across all branches from the Smithsonian Institution willing to follow the US Food Administration recommendations, including the charwomen and laborers of the Smithsonian.20 

Conclusion

Curators, aids, administrators, charwomen and laborers all contributed to the war effort. They were united in their commitment to help support the soldiers and war-ravaged European communities. Giving their time, skills, and resources, Smithsonian employees were working to support their country and those in need around the world.

FURTHER EXPLORATION

RELATED COLLECTIONS

FOOTNOTES


1 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, June 20, 1917. Return to text

2 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, June 26, 1917 Return to text

3Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, July 25, 1917 Return to text

4Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, August 1, 1917 Return to text

5 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, August 30, 1917 Return to text

6 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, July 7, 1917 Return to text

7 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, July 18, 1917 Return to text

8 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, November 7, 1917 Return to text

9 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, November 28, 1917 Return to text

10 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, June 13, 1917 Return to text

11 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, November 13, 1919 Return to text

12 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, July 10, 1919; RU 298, Box 1, Dec. 11, 1919 Return to text

13 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, April 3, 1917 Return to text

14 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 98, Folder 6, January 8, 1918 Return to text

15 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 98, Folder 6, January 17, 1918 Return to text

16 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 98, Folder 6, January 17, 1918 Return to text

17 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, Box 57, Folder 16, Annual Report, Section of Photography, 1918 Return to text

18 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 158, United States National Museum, Curators' Annual Reports, Box 57, Folder 16, Annual Report, Section of Photography, 1918 Return to text

19 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 67, Folder 10, Memo to Ravenel Return to text

20 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 67, Folder 10, Charwomen and Laborers pledge sheets Return to text