Clara Barton's Trunk Bed, a History and a Future

  • Barton Bed
  • Barton Bed
  • Barton Bed
A unique Clara Barton artifact gets ready to go on display

Clara Barton’s inspiration for starting the America Red Cross was cultivated while caring for the sick and wounded on Civil War battlefields. As a unique artifact from her time behind the lines goes on display, it’s a great reminder to appreciate stories told through any medium – whether it’s on paper, through a photograph or even a foldaway bed.

WHY THIS BED? Barton was determined to carry out the work she saw as necessary to help get supplies and medical care to the Civil War battlefields – so determined that she convinced the government and the Army to give her passes to go behind military lines.

According to Red Cross records, Barton’s situation led to an order to a firm in Philadelphia for a trunk bed, to be acquired by Barton for her use in battlefield relief.

Barton’s fortitude and frugality were a thread through everything she did during the war. Although she had the bed, Barton and her team made a point to serve soldiers by taking similar primitive living conditions and sleeping arrangements.

Red Cross archivist Susan Watson summarized Barton’s attitude as, “If they can take it, she can take it.”

Even if Barton and her group of supporters had sought a room to stay the night, any viable space close to battlefields – such as inns or churches – would have most likely been commandeered for makeshift battlefield hospitals.

CONSTRUCTION AND HISTORY Also called a camp bed, the piece is constructed to fold into a traveling trunk, complete with a wooden frame and tooled leather. To use the bed, Barton would have opened up the trunk into three sections – hinged on the short sides of the trunk as it opens – to reveal heavy canvas attached to the frame with nails.

Through conservation work on the bed in 2004, a sealed compartment was accessed to reveal slender poles that attached to the bed, and bright blue mosquito netting used as a canopy for additional protection.

Dr. Julian Hubbell, a long-time devotee of Barton and supporter of the Red Cross mission, helped carry on her story after her death. Ms. Rena Hubbell, niece of Dr. Hubbell, donated the trunk bed to Red Cross in April, 1931.

The bed has been housed in collections storage in a Washington, D.C. Red Cross building. In the past it was displayed in a neighboring Red Cross building, but it hasn’t been opened in years.

THE MOVE While Barton was not a trained nurse, she provided medical care for the wounded during the Civil War. Therefore, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland is a fitting location to display the bed in one of their galleries as part of a loan agreement with the Red Cross. This is the same museum that manages the Office for Missing Soldiers, an effort Barton started and ran out of the third floor of a building in Washington, D.C. after the Civil War ended.

“The museum is thrilled to work with the American Red Cross in bringing the story of Clara Barton to the American public through the use of an amazing artifact of her Civil War experience,” said George Wunderlich, Executive Director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

“Clara Barton is a far more influential figure in world history than most people are aware. Through the use of artifacts used by her, we can help tell her incredible story in a very personal and compelling way. The new partnership between our museum and the American Red Cross is doing more than bringing this outstanding artifact into the public eye; it is going to help people better understand Clara’s world and how she still influences our world in the 21st century.”

Watch the move from the Red Cross to the museum on the Red Cross YouTube channel, and stay tuned to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine to find out when the bed goes on display.

Tags: History.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.