Women sew in support of the Red Cross’s war effort at the organization’s D.C. headquarters in 1917. (N/A/Library of Congress)
Columnist

One of the things that has always struck me about the cluster of American Red Cross buildings off 17th Street NW, across from the Ellipse, is their sheer whiteness. There are three buildings, and they're all made of Vermont marble so blindingly white that I'm reminded of an old-fashioned nurse's uniform: bleached and starched and sanitized.

You might even say "pure," and perhaps it's that purity that has been so welcomed by people in need, especially in wartime. Imagine going from the horrifying muck and mire of a World War I trench to a cool and clean Red Cross hospital. It must have seemed like dying and going to heaven — without the dying part.

The role the American Red Cross played in the Great War is the subject of a modest new exhibit at the charity's headquarters. It's a fitting setting. The building was dedicated in 1917, the year the United States entered the war.

The Red Cross movement was itself born out of conflict. The International Red Cross was founded in 1863 after Swiss businessman Jean Henri Dunant was moved by the aftermath of the Austro-Sardinian war. The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, who had cared for soldiers in the Civil War.

As early as 1914, the American Red Cross sent a mercy ship to the European theater, stocked with medical supplies and staffed with nurses and doctors.

The ship came back when the money ran out, but when the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson asked the Red Cross to organize a multipronged aid effort. By the end of the war, the Red Cross had founded 50 hospitals in Europe, provided ambulance drivers (Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney both volunteered), entertained soldiers in canteens both stateside and overseas, reunited families lost in the chaos and rolled a lot of bandages.

I'd always wondered whether "rolling bandages" was really just busywork, but the exhibit explains that it was only one part of the useful medically related tasks performed by the charity's supporters. The Red Cross provided patterns so volunteers could knit walking casts and helmet liners. Volunteers stitched laparotomy pads, fabric items used in surgery to keep a soldier's insides inside.

Before rolling bandages, volunteers cut them, using massive shears to slice rolls of gauze down to size. Some of the gauze was packed with moss, which absorbed blood. This was all done in a clean room kept free of stray fibers, then it was sent off to be sterilized.

One exhibit case holds the handsome gray whipcord uniform worn by Georgia A. Cerow, who after graduating from Barnard College traveled to France, where she eventually helped manage a Red Cross warehouse.

Women were the backbone of the Red Cross, and before the war the organization had basically been run by one named Mabel Thorp Boardman. When war broke out, Boardman was sidelined, and control shifted to an all-male War Council.

"She didn't want to be pushed out," said Susan Watson, the Red Cross archivist who assembled the exhibition.

Nearly 400 Red Cross workers died in World War I, including 296 nurses. The majority were women.

Free tours of the Red Cross national headquarters, 430 17th St. NW, are at 10 and 2 on Wednesdays and Fridays. To make a reservation, email tours@redcross.org.

A shiny G.E.M.

After Monday's column on vanished Rockville/North Bethesda retail businesses, I heard from my friend Dave Nuttycombe.

"Not to pick a fight, but Jim Hartnett's memory is a wee bit off about the location of the G.E.M. store," Dave wrote. "The building was not on the site of the now-demolished White Flint Mall. It was right next door to the north, on Nicholson Lane in what is now the Shoppers grocery."

The address in ads in The Post from the 1970s is 5100 Nicholson Lane — and Kensington, not Rockville.

Wrote Dave: "I know this because my first job as a 16-year-old was working in the sports department of G.E.M. I knew nothing about sports and less about the many rifles and shotguns the store sold in that section. I wasn't allowed to deal with the firearms, though I did sell a few boxes of bullets, which were kept behind the counter. I lasted six weeks, and then school started. Later, I worked one Christmas at W. Bell, a similar members-only store on Twinbrook Parkway. That building is now a Guitar Center."

Dave joked that he's planning a walking tour of failed Rockville retail outfits.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported Susan Watson's name. It has been corrected.

Twitter: @johnkelly

 For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.