The Amazing History of the Red Cross

You likely have a Red Cross donation center in your area, and you may have wondered about this organization and whether it would be a good idea to donate clothes or money to them. Whenever there is a storm or wildfire disasters, the Red Cross donation center enters the spotlight, as people make contributions and send in used clothing donations. But what is the history of what many of us think of as an American institution?

Swiss Roots

The Red Cross actually started in Switzerland near the middle of the nineteenth century. In the Red Cross organizational structure, a Red Cross donation center is part of a local “chapter,” and the first chapter came about because a man named Henry Dunant was traveling in Italy just after the Battle of Solferino.

The battle was brutal, as they all are, and 400,000 men were dead, missing, or wounded. Neither side in the battle, nor the local residents, were able to deal with so many suffering people on such a massive scale.

National Relief

Determined to do something, Dunant wrote a book that inspired the Swiss to found a relief organization that would train up volunteers to help everyone after a battle, no matter which side they fought on. Dunant sat on the committee, and it eventually become known as the Red Cross. A few years later, another chapter opened in Germany. Dunant was the first person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1901, for his work in founding this important humanitarian effort.

Clara Barton

Many Americans associate the Red Cross with Clara Barton, and that is because she founded the American chapter of this organization. A few years after Dunant helped to found the Red Cross, Barton worked as a nurse in the American Civil War.

She became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her tireless service to wounded soldiers, and after the war she headed up the Missing Soldiers Office that helped friends and families find their loved ones. Of 63,000 missing men, she was able to locate 22,000: an incredible feat in a day before cell phones, computers, video, or even motorized vehicles.

American Red Cross

Barton was exhausted from her war service, so in the late 1860s she took a trip to Europe to rest. She heard about the fledgling Red Cross movement, and when she came back to the United States she campaigned for America to sign the Geneva Convention—which it did—and to found the American chapter of the Red Cross.

As America was not at war, the Red Cross in the United States initially focused on helping disaster victims, like survivors of floods and hurricanes. Barton headed up the Red Cross in America until 1904.

Red Cross Growth

The Red Cross in the United States grew quickly. In 1914 there were 100 chapters: by 1918 there were 3,800. During World War I, the Red Cross gathered 20,000 nurses. In World War II, they sent well over 100,000 nurses to the war, as well as more than 300,000 tons of supplies and started their now-famous blood donation program.

Today’s Red Cross

Today, the Red Cross continues to serve victims of disaster and war all across the globe. On all 365 days of the year, 24 hours out of every day, the Red Cross is providing relief somewhere in the form of blankets and clothes, food and water, blood and shelter. It is now America’s largest charity in terms of private donations, and in 2014 received more than $685 million in donations.

Your local Red Cross donation center is a great place to donate old clothing, donate your time, or donate your money. As long as some people are in need and other people are willing to help, the Red Cross will be there.

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