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Bundles for Britain then, masks for us now

REBECCA HENDERSON • May 29, 2020 at 9:00 PM

Attributed to various philosophers, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is most frequently credited to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. In these days of continuing COVID-19, as I write these words, that quote certainly seems appropriate.

I recently read “The Great Influenza” by John Berry. Similarly to today, people were encouraged to wear masks while in public. Although we certainly know more about how most diseases are spread today than in the early part of the last century, those in the midst of the Spanish Influenza were often frightened of the unknown, just as we are today.

Stepping back about 30 years, I was a member of the inaugural Bag-a-Bargain committee of the Junior League of Johnson City. Lottie Ryans chaired that event, and for the two years or so prior to the sale, our committee did quite a bit of research. One of the parts of research I was tasked with was to explore garage sales and figure out the optimal price for various merchandise. One Saturday morning, I wandered into the Gump Addition in Johnson City; for readers not familiar with Johnson City, the Gump Addition is an older, staid neighborhood, populated with significant, gorgeous, historic homes. The folks I visited weren’t trying to make money, but were just trying to rid themselves of things they no longer needed or wanted.

I don’t remember if I purchased anything else on that Saturday morning in the spring of 1991, except for a royal blue bag, shown in the accompanying photo. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination with all things British, so when I saw Bundles for Britain printed on the side, I knew I needed to make it mine. And so I did!

Because it was filled with many sizes and kinds of crochet hooks, knitting needles and embroidery hoops, as well as more than a few skeins of crochet thread and embroidery needles, I was captivated not only by the Bundles for Britain bag, but also with its contents. I don’t remember how much I paid for the treasure, but I don’t think it was more than a dollar or so. Clearly, it was unique and would be an outlier for our research. When I got home, I found the best part, which was the note, also in the picture above. It says, “Knitting bag used by Red Cross workers during World War II. We used to go twice a week to the Episcopal Church and roll bandages to send overseas. All taken care of by Red Cross. We used to knit caps for the Service Men.” Is that special or what?

As I was researching in the winter for my column in the Johnson City Press about Johnson City history, I came across this information about the Bundles for Britain; I doubt I would have paid it a second thought, had I not had the bag. The Sunday Press-Chronicle on March 23, 1941, reported that representatives in London, England, had notified the Johnson City Bundles for Britain chapter there was an “urgent need for supplies for civilian and fighting forces.”

According to Ancestry.com, prior to the United States becoming involved in the Second World War, there were many volunteer groups wanting to assist in the war effort. Natalie Wales Latham, who was a well-to-do socialite in New York, developed the concept of Bundles for Britain. The concept took feet in January 1940 as Natalie’s knitting club began making socks and caps for British sailors. Natalie’s efforts spread to enlist the assistance and knitting skills of female volunteers with approximately 2,000 chapters in every state at that time.

These efforts remind me of the masks that many of us have made, purchased or been gifted to hopefully protect us from getting COVID-19. In the picture, you’ll see a package of medical masks I bought, a calico mask made by Margaret Goergen, a friend I met at church, but whom I know best from the Monday Club, as well as through her sister, Carol Dubay. Dede Norungolo, former assistant executive director of Girl Scouts of the Appalachians Council, made the mask with Girl Scout-themed words. I ordered the blue mask from the L.C. King Company, a Bristol-Tennessee based manufacturer of high quality work clothing since 1913. The fashion tape is to tape the mask to my face, should the need arise.

As women in the 1940s knitted for British sailors, so have so many people made masks for those of us who needed them in 2020. Helping those who we can, in a way that we can. Indeed, the more that things change, the more they stay the same.

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