Library Fun Finds 11.11.22 - Veteran's Day Edition!

by Lauren VanDenBerg on

Library News

Welcome to Library Fun Finds! An ongoing series where we share some of the fun and unique items we come across in the library and archives collections.

The past few days have had files involving the museum’s role in WWII cross my desk, just in time for Veterans Day. Last year I shared the story of Hans Christian Adamson’s harrowing time lost (and recovery from) the Pacific after his B-17 went down. You can read about it here.

This year I wanted to share something a little different, the war effort at home. More specifically, let’s talk wartime knitting here at the museum!

Poster showing in roundels (top) a sailor and (bottom) a woman knitting.
Knit a bit for our first line of defense, Wool, needles and directions, Poster, by Jessie Banks; https://www.loc.gov/item/97516156/.
Courtesy, Library of Congress

For those of you who might not know, on top of being an archivist, I am an avid knitter...to put it mildly. I have recently started dipping my toe into historic knitting (currently I am knitting a sweater pattern that was reverse engineered from a 1920s sweater in the archives at the Shetland Museum). I have also spent a lot of time reading about the roles of women in the war and interwar years of the early 20th century. All this is to say, I am extremely excited to come across this material.

For both The Great War and World War II, the American Museum of Natural History became an interesting hub of activity. Staff and trustees joined various branches of the military, the select war services, and civil defense. Specialized knowledge, such as foreign language abilities and knowledge of geographical regions, were called upon by the government. Other examples were more outwardly visible, exhibits that reflected issues of war, a service member's canteen, war bond drives, celestial navigation courses for military personnel taught at the planetarium, and, of course, Red Cross programs.

Red Cross recruitment poster showing a basket of yarn and knitting needles.
Our boys need sox - knit your bit American Red Cross Poster, American Lithographic Co., between 1914 and 1918; https://www.loc.gov/item/00652152/
Courtesy, Library of Congress

In both wars, The Red Cross released knitting patterns and encouraged civilians to knit their bit for soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilian victims alike. Socks were a particularly popular item but also sweaters, hats, and so on. Civilians, but more especially women, took up their needles and answered the call. Let’s look at the knitted contribution of the American Museum of Natural History. There are some differences in the knitting committee records for World War I and World War II, but one thing is constant for both, the women of the Museum Knitting Committees came to knit! Let's start with the Great War:

Excerpt of Museum Knitting Committee report, May 21, 1917
From Central Archives; Excerpt of Museum Knitting Committee report, May 21, 1917
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

The United States formally declared war on Germany and entered the war on April 6, 1917. At this point the war had been raging for almost three years and there had been programs to knit for war victims but once the United States became an active party, these programs went into full force. Very quickly the American Museum War Relief Association was formed, and you can see from the May 21, 1917 report above, a Knitting Committee formed.

Excerpt of Museum Knitting Committee report, December 17, 1917
From Central Archives; Excerpt of Museum Knitting Committee report, December 17, 1917
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
American Museum War Relief Association First Report, November 1, 1918.
From Central Archives; American Museum War Relief Association First Report, November 1, 1918.
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH
Excerpt of Museum Knitting Committee report, May 3, 1918
From Central Archives; Excerpt of Museum Knitting Committee report, May 3, 1918
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

One thing that is worth noticing in these brief reports is that the knitters often had an idea of who they were knitting for. It might not have been a personal connection but the idea of adopting a submarine to knit for, or the 305th New York Infantry. By the end of the war, the AMWRA had “turned out nearly 30,000 surgical dressings, 1,050 hospital garments, 25 suits of refugee clothing, and 915 knitted articles” according to Museum Letter no. 10, a newsletter created to deliver news to museum employees away for war work.

Things were a little bit different in the museum, and the world in general, for World War II, but The Red Cross again encouraged the public to knit for the war effort and released a range of patterns to the public. Once again, the women of the American Museum of Natural History took up the challenge, as well as their needles, and the results are impressive!

Recapitulation of knitting and sewing totals, December 4, 1945
From Central Archives; Recapitulation of knitting and sewing totals, December 4, 1945
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

That is an astounding amount of knitting! While the First World War records of the knitting committee give an idea of who was being knit for, the second time around the campaign was a little more centralized. Projects would be knit and delivered to a Red Cross station and distributed based on current needs. Or people knit specifically for their loved ones, often a mix of both. While we don’t know where all these items went, in the WWII records we do know who did the knitting at the museum.

Number of Hours spent on knitting for the American Red Cross unit of the American Museum of Natural History, 1945
From Central Archives; Number of Hours spent on knitting for the American Red Cross unit of the American Museum of Natural History, 1945
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

As I mentioned, I am an avid knitter. Mrs. Michaela Welch and Miss Firehook are now among my knitting idols based on these numbers. That is an impressive amount of knitting, and I would absolutely love to see a breakdown of what types of garments they were knitting. I would also like to call attention to Miss Hazel Gay on that list, coming in with an impressive 501 hours of knitting and 25 completed garments. Miss Gay was not only part of the World War I knitting committee, she was a museum librarian!

Excerpt from AMNH Grapevine reporting on knitting and sewing by the Museum Unit of the American Red Cross, December 1945
From Central Archives; Excerpt from AMNH Grapevine reporting on knitting and sewing by the Museum Unit of the American Red Cross, December 1945
L. VanDenBerg/© AMNH

If you look at the numbers you might be wondering why the World War I knitting committee was able to produce 915 knitted articles in the relatively brief period the United States was in the war (April 6, 1917-November 11, 1918) while the World War II women had more years but knit only 82 more items? The women of the first knitting committee had something the women of the second did not, a knitting machine for knitting socks. It is unclear if the machine was purchased, leased, or borrowed from the committee records, but it seems to have arrived at the museum in late 1917. It was a hand crank mechanism that, when properly loaded and attended, would allow for up to three socks an hour to be produced. A great boost to the total amount produced while individuals hand knit things like hats, scarves, and other items. There is no mention of anything like this in the World War II records, so all work by the World War II knitters was done by hand.

Ok, time for some bonus content!

I Wonder Who's Knitting for Me? 1917, cover of sheet music
I Wonder Who's Knitting for Me? 1917, cover of sheet music, https://www.loc.gov/item/2014564406/
Courtesy, Library of Congress

Did you really think someone who is passionate about archival research and knitting wasn’t going to provide additional history of wartime knitting? Or track down the various knitting patterns put out by The Red Cross?

More about the history of the Red Cross knitting program is available here via the Center for Knit and Crochet

As well as a look at WWII knitting propaganda, wartime knitting contests, etc.

Some of the patterns from WWI were printed in “Handbook of Wool Knitting and Crochet” originally published in 1918 and available free via The Gutenberg Project

The Red Cross WWII knitting patterns were originally made available via The Red Cross Museum and are now available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

This entry was written by Lauren VanDenBerg, Shelby White & Leon Levy Project Archivist.