Beginnings of the American Red Cross

The American Red Cross (officially named The American National Red Cross) was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, an American humanitarian and civil rights activist. Barton modeled the American Red Cross (ARC) after the International Red Cross, based in Geneva, Switzerland, which she encountered while volunteering in Europe during the late 1800s. She envisioned an organization that would provide humanitarian aid during wartime and in the event of national calamities.

Barton served as the organization’s president from 1881 to 1904. Under her leadership, the American Red Cross provided relief and support during the 1887 yellow fever epidemic in Florida, an 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the Spanish-American War, and the 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas. The ARC also sent aid and supplies during the 1891 Russian Famine and the South African War (1899-1902). During the early twentieth century, the Red Cross formalized a national network for recruitment and training of professional nurses, primarily women, for emergency preparedness and wartime service. Upon the United States’ entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a War Council to run the ARC. In 1914, the first 138 ARC nurses sailed to Europe on the SS Red Cross (also called the “Mercy Ship”) to work in war zones in France, England, Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

During World War I, the ARC also ran an aggressive enrollment campaign, and by the summer of 1918, the ARC boasted 9,000 nurses, with plans to recruit at least 40,000 more. This set uses photographs, letters, posters, and publications to explore the beginnings of the American Red Cross under the initial leadership of Clara Barton, its shift away from neutrality and civil rights during wartime, and its impact on the establishment of a female workforce in the United States.