A recent acquisition: The Canadian Red Cross Collection

By Kes Murray, Registrar

This past week, we had the pleasure of welcoming a large collection of items from the Canadian Red Cross, Durham Branch, into our collection. This new acquisition is quite vast, with objects ranging from uniforms to annual reports. And, of course, going through our newest acquisition lead me down a Red Cross history spiral…

A grey/blue uniform consisting of a knee length skirt, jacket, and bonnet style hat. The hat and jacket feature a Red Cross patch
Women’s Red Cross uniform, unknown year 022.1.1-3

The Red Cross was founded in 1859 by Henry Dunant. Dunant witnessed a battle between the French and Austrian armies in Northern Italy. Here he saw many soldiers wounded. With medics unable to cope with the volume of patients, he set up a temporary hospital. Three years later, Dunant wrote a novel proposing his idea of countries establishing a neutral and independent group of helpers that could provide care during times of conflicts. This sparked the creation of the Red Cross movement.

Here in Canada, the Red Cross movement began with the North West Resistance of 1885. Certain individuals familiar with the Red Cross movement in Europe used the Red Cross flag to act as independent medics. It was not until 1896 that Toronto surgeon and militia member Dr. George Sterling Ryerson gained permission to establish a branch of the British Red Cross in Canada.

A white pin, featuring a red cross and the year 1940
1940 Red Cross pin 022.1.4

In its early years, the Canadian Red Cross only worked during wartime. However, a turning point came at the end of the First World War.

During the war, the Canadian Red Cross had increased substantially with funding and volunteers, so much so that Canadian Red Cross leaders did not want to see the organization disappear until another war broke out. So, the Canadian Red Cross expanded their mandate to include the phrase “in times of peace.” This allowed the Red Cross to be involved in many peacetime public health and welfare work. Finally in 1927, rather than being a branch of the British Red Cross, the Canadian Red Cross officially became an independent Red Cross society.

All the photographs you see in this post are some of my favourite items in our new collection. The uniform was particularly exciting to unbox and photograph. It is a woman’s uniform, most likely made of wool and handmade. It is a most unique item as we do not have anything like the uniform in our collection.

During my research, I also learned that May 8 is World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. This day celebrates the creation of the Red Cross movement. It seems rather fortunate, then, that I get to share with you all our newest acquisition.


Sources consulted:

https://www.redcross.ca/about-us/about-the-canadian-red-cross/historical-highlights/getting-started-1896-1913

https://www.redcross.ca/about-us/about-the-canadian-red-cross/historical-highlights/the-interwar-years-1919-1939

https://www.redcross.ca/blog/2018/5/a-reason-to-smile-world-red-cross-day

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