The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Seventy-Three

June 17-30, 1918

“Got wool at Auxiliary II.” During the summer of 1918, Kate Roosevelt and most of America were part of something called the “Wool Brigade.” World War One was in full force on the front and knitting was considered a patriotic duty. The clicking and clacking of knitting needles and the focused murmur of “knit one, purl two” could be heard across the country, from coast to coast. Knitting warm garments for the troops was something everyone was doing.

Seattle Grand Jury knitting between deliberations

Children, octogenarians, women, men and even one very determined Civil War Veteran were all doing their part. Firemen in Cincinnati Seattle; inmates serving time at Sing-Sing Prison, stenographers and their bosses at Universal Studios and wounded soldiers were “needling the enemy” by learning to knit.

Central Park Knitting Bee

Every day at noon, Kate could stop by Madison Square in Lower Manhattan to pick up wool or join the knitting circle. The Navy League’s Comforts Committee was located at 509 Fifth Avenue. It sponsored a three day “Knitting Bee.” Held at Central Park, its purpose was to produce warm garments to send overseas.

Comforts Committee Poster

Participants competed for speed and agility. One of the committee members said, “The click of needles was heard all the way to Germany.” The event resulted in the making of 50 sweaters; 50 mufflers; 224 pairs of socks and 40 head and neck coverings called “wool helmets.”

Knitting Booth at Madison Square in New York City

How could anyone ignore the pitiful pleas coming from the soldiers asking for warm clothing? The Red Cross mobilized large groups of volunteer knitters to fill the order asking for 1.5 million knitted garments, especially socks. The muddy, soggy trenches were no match for flimsy footwear, especially when during frigid weather.

Soldiers in Snow-covered trenches

One soldier wrote from the front, “The difficulty is to keep one’s feet warm. One walks and they get warm. Stand for one minute and they turn to icicles again.” Changing into clean, dry socks on a regular basis helped to avoid frostbite and trench foot.

Kate Roosevelt was doing her bit for the cause. Family members and friends were among the troops fighting for the Allies. Her nephew, Howland Davis, Jr. and cousin Teddy Roosevelt’s four sons had all volunteered for active duty and like all the other soldiers relied on the home front to send them warm clothes.

Knitter in Westbury, Connecticut

Red, white and blue tape measures were sold. Betsy Ross Yarn Mills, located at 354 Fourth Avenue and Madison Square, advertised water repellent, khaki and grey wool with the slogan, “Uncle Sam Wants You to Knit to Protect Our Boys Over There.” Some began saying, “Grey wool is our ammunition.” Americans knitted at home; at work and church while waiting for trains and sitting in restaurants. Some even knitted in the theater and concert halls. The New York Philharmonic was forced to quiet fanatical knitters in the audience. The sound of criss-crossing knitting needles was disrupting performances.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

On WAT-CAST, listen to Sharon talk about the series.

Photo One:
Knitting Booth at Grand Central Station
National Archives

Photo Two:
Seattle Grand Jury knitting between deliberations
National Archives

Photo Three:
Central Park Knitting Bee
Library of Congress

Photo Four:
Comforts Committee Poster
Library of Congress

Photo Five:
Knitting Booth at Madison Square in New York City
National Archives

Photo Six:
Soldiers in Snow-covered trenches
National Archives

Photo Seven:
Knitter in Westbury, Connecticut
National Archives