Homefront Digest
    Vol. 1 No. 5
    October 2001


    This month ww2homefront.com is pleased to feature a guest editorial from Mrs. Lessa Scherrer. Mrs. Lessa Scherrer is a freelance writer who lives in Wisconsin with her husband, three sons and a British war relief collection large enough to have taken over her office. Photographs of her collection can be found on this website under Isolationism; Bundles For Britain and at Mrs. Scherrer's site at http://photos.yahoo.com/pittsburgheast. Her current projects include a web site and book on British War Relief Collectibles, and a novel about a German war refugee who joins the USO to escape being detained by her adoptive home country. She can be reached at bundles4britain@yahoo.com with comments and questions. She also sells related collectibles on Ebay and can be searched under Ebay ID Bundles4Britain. We are indebted to Mrs. Scherrer for her generous donation of photographs and of her contribution to our knowledge base.


Relief organizations are our first line of humanitarian response to tragedy. Pleas on behalf of the 9-11 Fund, the NY Police and Fire Fighters Fund and the American Red Cross are with us daily. Such was also the situation in America in the early 1940's. Even before Pearl Harbor, Americans were regularly ask to donate money to relieve the suffering of victims of the European War. After Dunkirk and the Blitzkreig began, Americans opened their homes, hearts and wallets to the British. Children were evacuated from the war zone to relatives in the US and Canada. Prominent citizens, who often had relatives in the British aristocracy, sent money and supplies to their friends overseas. As their need grew, charities on behalf of the British people began popping up all over America. A short list includes the American Committee for Air Raid Relief, American Ambulance in Great Britain, American Hospital in Britain, British American Ambulance Corps, the British Hospital Association, Bundles for Britain, St. Dunstan's Hospital for the War-Blinded, as well as many Charities based in Britain.

By 1941, most of these organizations were administered by an umbrella organization called the British War Relief Society (BWRS). Like the United Service Organizations (USO), which served as an executive framework for its six member organizations, the BWRS was primarily an administrative office, a central receiving depot for money and supplies donated which were then parceled out to its affiliate organizations in the US and in Britain. These donations were raised in the name of the BWRS, rather than in the name of the smaller groups.

One notable exception is Bundles for Britain. Bundles was begun by Mrs. Wales Latham, a young New York Society matron who began her charity work for Britain by organizing her friends to knit garments for British sailors on the frigid North Sea. Mrs. Winston Churchill had put out a call for Englishwomen to knit these items, and Mrs. Latham decided to answer the call from across the Atlantic. Her knitting circle was such a success, Mrs. Latham decided to broaden her horizons.

That was December 1939. As it says in a Look magazine story from December 1940, "[Mrs. Latham] got a license from the State Department, wheedled an empty store rent-free from a Park Avenue landlord, [and] persuaded Mrs. Winston Churchill to become a sponsor." The genius of the operation was that anyone with idle hands, spare time, or spare clothing could participate. Bundles focused on producing and shipping needed supplies, rather than collecting money. The storefront offices were workrooms where volunteers could drop in to knit and sew garments to send to Britain. Cast-off clothing was mended or made over. If the cast-offs were not wearable, they would be cut up for woolen patchwork blankets, or baby sleeping bags, as were produced by a sewing room in Middletown, N.Y. Monetary donations of all sizes came pouring in: a sharecropper sent in nine pennies; $1.15 arrived, the profit from two sisters' Kool Aid stand; a radio appeal by the likes of film stars Charles Boyer and Ronald Coleman, netted $30,000 for medical supplies.

The American Theatre Wing, a group of actresses and other theatrical women, banded together as they had in the First War and became The American Theatre Wing of the British War Relief Society. They gave not only entertained at benefits but operated their own sewing room to produce items for British war refugees. It was quite common in the tabloids and magazines of this period to see photographs of British actresses, such as Vivien Leigh, with their yarn, knitting for Britain during down time on the set.

British actress Gertrude Lawrence was a vice president of the American Theatre Wing of the British War Relief Society. She included letters in the programs of her performances, at first urging theatre-goers to buy the souvenir merchandise the BWRS made available in the lobby. Later she switched to hawking souvenir programs, presumably a better seller and easier to stock. Also by that time, the BWRS items were available for sale to the public in fine department stores like Bergdorf Goodman.

Bundles for Britain and the British War Relief Society and its affiliates provide a wealth of items for the homefront collector. Probably most familiar and least expensive are the pins. They display the lion and shield "British War Relief Emblem" reputedly designed by Mrs. Wales Latham herself. They usually feature the French motto "Dieu et mon Droit". Translated as "God and my right", this motto appears on the British Royal crest and was once the watchword of Richard the Lionheart. All pins are labelled on the back as either "Official Bundles for Britain" or, more commonly, "Official BWRS and BB". The larger brooch is usually thought of as a woman's piece and is sometimes mis-identified as a BWRS membership pin. The small pin, sometimes called the "men's lapel pin", comes in pinback and screwback varieties, has less ribbon enamel work and is more common on the market today, likely because it was less costly to purchase at the time. These pins sold for $2.50 and $1 respectively in 1941, and can be purchased in near mint condition today for $10-$30.

Because the RAF were the great heroes of the day, Bundles and the BWRS produced wing pins marked RAF on the front, with their Bundles or BWRS affiliation on the back. These wings were usually vermeil (24k goldplate over sterling) with enamel and are made by Monet or Accessocraft, two well-known costume jewelry manufacturers. Depending on size and condition, these pins usually cost between $10 and $25.

There are many other British/American support pins which can be found from this period, if not marked for BWRS. For example, the British American Ambulance Corps also produced several pins, including their own versions of RAF wings, as well as cinderellas and matchbooks.

The other more common BWRS items on the market today are their cigarette cases and compacts, made by the US company Henriette. Both cases are brass with machine-turned interiors and white enamel outside with the British war relief emblem on the cover.

Compacts and cases with an interior sticker reading "Sole Authentic Case for the benefit of British War Relief Society and Bundles for Britain" are more sought after and will command higher prices, i.e. $75-$100 for a mint compact with sticker, protective felt bag and original box as opposed to $25-$30 for the mint compact alone (including puff).

But what of other collectibles? My fascination with the BWRS began when I found just how ingeniously it was marketed. There were charity sporting events. Memorabilia from these events can be had for as little as $2 for a token from the BWRS golf tournament in June, 1941. More rare items include newspaper clippings from tennis tournaments or matchbooks advertising a polo tournament. The BWRS encouraged contract bridge tournaments in which players pledged a penny a point to war relief. Decks of playing cards and bridge tally pads with the British war relief emblem can sometimes be found on the market.

Matchbooks were an inexpensive and ubiquitous form of advertising in the 1930's and '40's. Each local branch of the BWRS, its affiliates and Bundles for Britain produced its own matchbooks. Some have donation coupons printed on the inside, urging: "Say, I'm glad I did, not I wish I had". These can be found today as matchbook covers as well as complete, unstruck books. There are also brass matchbox covers on the market. Usually selling between $5 and $10, these covers are enameled on top and bottom with the BWRS name and logo and read "There'll Always Be An England" on the spine.

British war relief is a delight for theatre program collectors. Gracie Fields, the "Sweetheart of the British Empire", did fifty concerts for British war relief in 1940-41 alone. Sometimes these programs can be found autographed. Cary Grant donated his entire salaries for the films "Mr. Lucky" and the "Philadelphia Story" to British war relief. Many Gertrude Lawrence programs from the period include the fundraising letters from her, complete with mechanically reproduced signature. British actor Maurice Evans recorded the great "England" speeches from Shakespeare's "Richard II" and "Henry V" and sold them in the lobby at his performances for $1 a piece. Few of these recordings still exist, making them highly collectible.

There is a myriad of stamps, stickers,
dishes, books, magazine covers,
clothing, postcards, greeting cards and
patriotic envelopes which are British
war relief-related. This is the perfect
time to add some British war relief
collectibles your homefront collection.
The market is just beginning to explode.
I've seen prices on the more common
pins rise from $3 to $30 in just the last
year. And new, interesting items are
appearing from attics every day. Greek
and Russian War Relief items are also
popular, although their organizations
seem to have been less prolific than
the BWRS.

A couple of historical notes: The American Theatre Wing of the British War Relief Society was the first organization to send what we would now consider a "USO Camp Show" to Great Britain. Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair and Carole Landis toured the foxholes of the European Theatre even before the USO got there. Eventually, the American Theatre Wing joined the USO and opened the famous Stage Door Canteen in New York. I have not been able to establish if they severed ties with the BWRS at this time, although it is possible they were heavily involved with both.

After VJ Day, the BWRS slowed its pace, eventually closing its doors. Bundles for Britain, however, was incorporated into the Marshal Plan to rebuild Europe and renamed the Committee for American Relief Everywhere (CARE). The "care packages" that we now send to homesick college students had their start with the industrious Mrs. Wales Latham.


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