A Red Cross Fund-Raising Auction Offers a Window on History
By Ian Wilhelm
TO SHORE UP a $33.5-million deficit, the American Red Cross is cleaning out its
The national headquarters of the
nonprofit group is closing a warehouse here that has stored thousands of objects collected during its
128-year history—a move that will
save the group $3-million a year.
The nonprofit organization will
keep important historic items or
give them to the National Archives;
the rest are available through an
online auction, through which the
Red Cross hopes to raise some
While a Cartier clock lamp and
other valuable auction pieces have
received attention, it is the more
modest memorabilia—the knickknacks and odd gifts—that perhaps
offer a telling glimpse into the venerable organization.
a yard sale can relate to: what to
keep and what to sell?
This day, in a sense, is a final
walk-through. The auction for the
less-expensive items ended in November and soon the new owners
will come for them. (The auction for
the high-end objects continues until
Weaving through the 78,800-
square-foot complex, Ms. Watson
leads the way to a back room where
the remaining items have been
stacked floor to ceiling on gray, aluminum shelves.
Looking at the objects is like
being in a time warp. A 1940s-era
poster of Clark Gable asks people to
the auction house selling the items
says he has heard voices while cataloging the lots to be sold.
A budget deficit forced
the Red Cross to clean
out thousands of
historic items it collected
over the years.
What to Keep?
On a recent Monday morning, Susan Watson, the Red Cross’s archivist, strolls through the warehouse
to take a look at the pieces.
Ms. Watson spent a year sorting
through the objects, asking a question every homeowner who has had
volunteer. A pamphlet thanks donors for helping during Hurricane
Beulah, which ravaged the Gulf
Coast in 1967. And a plaster bust
of Wilbert E. Longfellow, known as
the “Amiable Whale” for championing water safety in the early 20th
century, stares out at the room with
a jolly expression.
Buried beneath the memorabilia
are some downright odd objects: a
fake leg from Southeast Asia, an
Indian hookah pipe, and a piece
of wood with a rusted door hinge
thrust into it, a remnant of a tornado that hit Helena, Ala., in 1933,
that presumably had been brought
back by a Red Cross relief worker.
With such unusual, almost macabre, objects lying around, the cavernous warehouse has a somewhat
spooky feeling. Indeed, a worker for
Quirky items and strange noises
aside, the storeroom reveals more-profound stories about the Red
Cross and its charitable history.
On one shelf sits a stack of watercolor paintings. One of them,
titled “Hospital Ward Party,” shows
a gathering of American soldiers
in the Philippines on December 23,
1945. In thin hues on yellowing
paper, two men are in line to get
some soup and a handful of “
Sunshine Biscuits” from smiling Red
Cross workers. While bandaged
up, the soldiers look to be enjoying
the reprieve. One can almost hear
their laughter, eager chats about returning stateside, and an earnest
thanks for a small gesture of compassion at Christmastime.
Walking past the objects, Ms.
Watson rattles off arcane knowledge of the Red Cross and refers to
the group’s past leaders as if they
“We have some of Clara’s things,”
she says nonchalantly, referring to
Clara Barton, the charity’s founder.
The archivist, of course, kept anything that belonged to the famous
By the racks of uniforms, Ms.
Watson explains the meaning of the
colored epaulets on the World War
II coats. Yellow meant administrative duties, while the green were for
the motor corps, which were considered an elite team because of
their mechanical and driving skills.
“That was the sexy one,” she says.
The uniforms and other objects
have attracted a variety of buyers,
including Red Cross volunteers.
Keith Roberson, for instance,
spent $2,400 on historic Red Cross
newsletters, a statue of Ms. Barton,
and other objects. He plans to donate them to the Frederick County,
Md., chapter of the organization, of
which he is chairman of the board
and which has a small museum to
display the pieces.
While glad the memorabilia will
stay in the Red Cross family, Mr.
Roberson would have preferred
that the national headquarters
give some of the objects to its local
groups instead of putting them up
for sale. (The organization did hold
a separate auction exclusively for
Red Cross personnel.)
“To say an amateur historian of
this organization is happy to see
us sell such a storied history would
not be correct,” he says in an e-mail
message to The Chronicle. But he
understands the financial necessities.
“Hard times cause hard decisions,” he says.