2018-02-21

The Vision Splendid: How One Woman Sent 7 Million Christmas Presents To WWI Europe

Sitting in front of a fan in the heat of late August, novelist Lilian Bell was thinking about Christmas. War had broken out in Europe a month earlier. Casualties were mounting. She found herself obsessing on how desolate it would be when the poor and orphaned children faced their first wartime holiday.

Lilian Bell, 1890s
Lilian Bell, 1890s

Suddenly, she was struck by “The Vision Splendid.” Why couldn’t the children of America be moved to give the children of Europe a proper Christmas? The words of Matthew 25:40 echoed in her head: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” The Vision came into view – “the Christmas Ship come sailing, and flying from her staff was the beautiful flag of the Christmas Ship – with its white ground from Peace, its golden star of Hope, and it’s motto the single word-“Inasmuch!””

Her imagination, she admitted, sometimes got her into trouble.

Most “visions splendid” die not long after they form, but Lilian Bell wasn’t about to let that happen.

Her first stop was Chicago, where she enlisted the support of James Keeley, editor of the Chicago Herald. Keeley had served for years as editor of the Tribune, but in the spring of 1914 had purchased four failing city papers and merged them into a single entity. Bell – the wife of a promoter – knew exactly what she was doing in pitching her project to him. A splashy, patriotic drive like the one Bell proposed was exactly the sort of visibility-raising campaign he was looking for.

The strategy was simple: Bell would write a front-page call-to-action under Keeley’s byline to the children of America while he traveled east and used his political connections to win approval from authorities in Washington. He would help set up a steering committee and she would work on outreach and publicity.

To the Children of America” was splashed across the front page of the Herald on Saturday, September 5, 1914. In the type of part morbid, part saccharine prose of her era, Bell managed to combine the image of “Santa Claus fell dead on the battlefield,” “the physical agony of the hungry and the underfed,” and countless little Gretchens, Ivans, and Maries waking up to a Christmas without presents into a downright inspiring call to clever, industrious, generous American children to “stretch out your hands across the sea bearing messages of love and hope and sympathy to the children of a war-ridden continent.” They could become Santa Claus by donating their pennies and their toys and sending them on The Christmas Ship. Within days, this open letter was reprinted in newspapers across the nation.

As Bell anticipated, The Christmas Ship fired the public’s imagination. It played into a basic desire to do good and into the slightly less attractive sense of American exceptionalism, of “fortunate America” heaping their goodness on “unfortunate Europe.” It was the perfect project for classrooms, for institutions, for women’s clubs and fraternal organizations and unions and church groups. Newspapers adopted it as a worthy public cause – one that just happened to help boost circulation. The Wilson Administration signed on, offering the services of the military and the State Department.

Most importantly, on October 15, the Navy assigned the USS Jason, a sturdy 19,250-ton fuel ship, to make the treacherous journey across the Atlantic. She would depart Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal on November 14.

Over a period of two months, Americans collected and shipped over fifty full railcars full of goods to Brooklyn. It was the collective work of hundreds of groups and thousands of volunteers, but what struck Lilian Bell was that “[t]he cargo of the Christmas Ship was personal.”

She was particularly touched by the stories of parents who donated the toys of their children who had died young. In Springfield, South Dakota, students collected ‘a mile of pennies’ which they used to buy clothing for children in Belgium, while one young girl donated the five cents she won from her mother every time she got 100 on her spelling, even though “[t]his is a hard way for me to earn money for spelling is against my nature.” A group of little girls in Ridgeway, Pennsylvania, wrote letters to unknown little girls in Europe, enclosed not only fresh paper but international postage coupons. Women in San Francisco sewed 2,500 items of clothing and collected hundreds more. One person even donated an organ. “Just what good this instrument will do the little sufferers who have neither clothes nor roofs to shelter them has not yet been fathomed[.]” But it was packed nonetheless.

People from all walks of life joined in the effort. Practically the first cash donation she received was postmarked from the Penitentiary at Joliet. “Inclosed please find one dollar and an abundance of Good Will toward the Christmas Ship fund. Thomas J. Bent, Convict 195.” The prisoners at Joliet, along with other institutions, turned out an abundance of handmade toys from their workshops. At the other end of the spectrum and the other end of the supply chain, the upper class ladies of New York spent days in the overflowing warehouse at Bush Terminal working alongside soldiers, sailors and Red Cross volunteers to bring some order to the chaos of goods.

Volunteers packed 10,000 crates of goods for Europe in the fall of 1914.
Volunteers packed 10,000 crates of goods for Europe in the fall of 1914.

Although the press focused more on the vast array of toys and games, a large part of the material packed into the Jason was humanitarian aid. Much of this was earmarked for Belgium, which was already on the brink of famine. A bewildering array of foodstuffs made its way to New York. Famine staples like flour, sugar, beans and corn were stacked to the warehouse rafters. California farmers donated dried fruit; growers in Texas sent pecans and peanuts; northeastern orchards provided barrels of apples. There were treats as well, barrels of candy and other sweets tucked in with the more wholesome goods. One merchant in New York even contributed a case of grape juice.

After weeks of nonstop work by hundreds of volunteers, the Jason was ready to depart. Lilian Bell, still working with the coordinating committee in Chicago, looked at the final reports as “the only interesting statistics I ever read.” Donations had come from every state, plus shipments from Canada and even Panama. It was impossible to get a full count, but the estimate was that in nine weeks, 7 million separate items had been collected. The ship was also carrying $42,000 in cash donations – equivalent to about $1 million today. The Jason’s captain, Lieutenant Commander C.E. Courteney, put the final count at 10,000 cases of items packed into the holds.

Thousands gathered around the Brooklyn docksides to watch the Jason set sail. Shortly after noon on November 14, the “Santa Claus Ship” cast off her lines, slid “into midstream  and headed for the sea on her voyage of mercy and happiness, flying the flag of the greatest admiral — Santa Claus.”

Part Two: Peg Away and Keep Smiling: The Santa Claus Ship Brings Christmas to War-Torn Europe
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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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