It’s National Nurses Week and the American Red Cross recognizes the more than 20,000 nurses and student nurses who serve the organization today. A time-honored tradition, Red Cross nursing pins are an integral part of Red Cross nursing history, and each pin has a special story.
“While I still have my wits about me, I want to return my badge. I will miss the Red Cross but can no longer volunteer.”
“My mother passed away last week. She insisted I return her Red Cross nurse’s badge to your office. She was proud to be a Red Cross nurse.”
“My mother asked me to send her American Red Cross Enrollment Card for your records. She chose to be buried with her badge.”
Every badge has a story. These quotes are the opening words from just a few of the letters accompanying the return of an American National Red Cross nurse badge and enrollment card to national headquarters, many of them in their original boxes after years of service.
For decades, nurses returned pins in accordance with the instructions they received at the time of enrollment. Service may have been with the military or with chapter and community programs. Over and over, touching letters stated, “It’s been an honor to be a Red Cross nurse and wear my pin.”
What is the story behind this special badge? Portia B. Kernodle’s 1949 book, The Red Cross Nurse in Action provides the standard answer.
“The design of the Red Cross nurse’s badge or pin was derived from a pin of the American Medical Association with the addition of the laurel wreath on the outer edge. It was adopted in July 1906, and the first order (250) was placed in August. As an afterthought, the Red Cross wished to have consecutive numbers on the back, but when the suggestion was made the order was already too far advanced. The first order for numbered pins was placed in July 1909, to begin with No. 768. Under the first enrollment plan, badges were distributed by the state branches, which apparently did not keep accurate lists. After Jane Delano became chairman of the National Committee on Red Cross Nursing Service, she tried to make a list of nurses of the ‘old enrollment’ but she was never able to complete it.”
Jane Delano received Badge Number 775, and like some Red Cross nurses, once lost her badge. As she was preparing to leave on her last trip to France in 1919, she was waiting for her rushed replacement badge.
Information was recently uncovered at the National Archives describing the first plans for the design and production of the badge in June 1906. Letters went back and forth from the Red Cross Executive Committee to the Whitehead and Hoag Company. They included a photograph of the American Medical Association pin and suggestions to add the blue band inside a laurel wreath, and to print American National Red Cross Nurse in gold within the circle. Several samples were needed to reach the final design. The letter of August 10, 1906 asked for those first 250 pins with an additional order to be placed in the not too distant future.
In November, 1908, Bailey, Banks and Biddle Co. in Philadelphia were producing the badges for 75 cents and included the first service bar for the eighteen nurses who responded to the Mississippi tornado in April.
One hundred years ago, at the outset of World War I, the S.S. Red Cross, the Mercy Ship, sailed toward Europe with 125 American Red Cross nurses in complete uniforms, consisting of the famous blue cape with its scarlet red lining, the cap with a small Red Cross in the center, and the enrollment badge on the gray work uniform. For years to come, the Red Cross nurse was associated with this image.
By June, 1920 the American Red Cross had enrolled more than 36,000 nurses, including the first 104 African American nurses. Enrollment reached 195,231 in 1946, including 363 male nurses and 1,846 African American nurses.
From its inception, the Red Cross Nursing Service constituted the reserve for the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Each Red Cross nurse received a numbered badge and enrollment card with regulations for wearing the badge. The badge and card remained the property of the Red Cross, protected by an act of Congress. Enrolled nurses also responded to local and national disasters, assisted with public health programs especially in rural and remote areas, taught classes at chapters, and assisted with the national blood program.
After World War II, the Red Cross Nursing Service faced dramatic changes. The military no longer needed the Red Cross Reserve for the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Although enrollment ceased for a period of time, nurses continued to show interest in joining the Red Cross and receiving the coveted nurse pin. The badge identified the nurse with a world-wide humanitarian movement and gave recognition to professional preparation and desire to serve. The Red Cross authorized the reorganization of the nurse enrollment service in May, 1947 to provide nurses for support of peacetime chapter and community programs. Enrollment increased each year and by the late 2000s there were more than 370,000 people enrolled.
A statement in a booklet from post-World War II remains true today: “The opportunity for service through the Red Cross continues to challenge all nurses who wish to contribute to the betterment of the community—the nation—and the world.” The Red Cross nurse pin continues to be worn as a badge of honor by nurses rising to the challenge to serve.