During World War I, American Red Cross volunteer services faced rapid expansion. To delineate the lines of service, the Red Cross employed a color coding system for the uniforms and service pins. Although all the uniforms were distinctive and possessed their own special recognition factor, the Hostess and Hospital Service and Recreation corps, founded in 1918 at Walter Reed Army Hospital, became a unique and enduring symbol of Red Cross service in military and later civilian hospitals. The service was initiated by Mabel Boardman, Secretary for the Red Cross and organized by Edith Oliver Rea who became the first field director.
Although the hospital corps’ gray uniform with white collar and cuffs was not one of the more vibrant shades, the volunteers wearing it were affectionately known as the Gray Ladies to the wounded soldiers. The corps, composed primarily of women volunteers, acted as hostesses and provided recreational services to patients, many of whom were injured during World War I. Although their official name was changed to a more manageable Hospital and Recreation Corps in 1934, it was the Gray Lady moniker that resonated through the years and in 1947, after World War II, the name was officially changed to the Gray Lady service.
Although the Gray Ladies provided non-medical care, they underwent a rigorous training process, provided by medical professionals and the Red Cross, which included hospital organization, ethics, psychiatry and occupational therapy. By the 1930s, with increased demand during the Depression, the Gray Lady Service spread to other hospitals around the country, both military and civilian. Their services also extended to blood centers and providing assistance with disaster response. During World War II, the service reached its peak with almost 50,000 women serving as Gray Ladies in military and other hospitals throughout the United States. Following the war, some Gray Ladies also served in U.S. military hospitals overseas. Although the numbers decreased, the Gray Ladies continued serving in American hospitals until the mid-1960s when the Red Cross shifted to a unified concept of volunteers. In keeping with this new policy, a universal blue uniform replaced the multi-hued collection of volunteer uniforms.
Today, the Red Cross continues providing support to hospitalized U.S. military personnel with dedicated volunteers through Service to the Armed Forces.