Marked Foresight and Sound Judgement: Mary Vail Andress, ARC

by Mary Goljenboom

Mary Vail Andress and other American Red Cross workers, Toul railroad station, March 7, 1918
Red Cross workers including Toul Canteen director Mary Vail Andress (woman on the left) distributing refreshments to the 5th Regt. Field Artillerymen on the way to the British-French front. Toul railroad station, March 7, 1918. Photo from the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

In 1917, after the US had entered World War I, the American Red Cross put out a call for volunteers to run canteens in France. Mary Vail Andress answered. She easily met the requirements. At 34 years old, she was in good health and on the young side of age the prerequisite. Having operated a school in Paris for American girls until war had broken out in 1914, she already spoke French. She was able to pay all her own expenses. While she had no experience with the American Red Cross (ARC), she knew the service sector: in addition to running her school, she’d also worked for the New York Settlement house. Quickly selected, by late summer, Andress was in France with ARC’s Canteen Corps.

Canteens provided weary soldiers with rest and refreshments. The Red Cross worked with officials of both the French military and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) to open, staff, and supply canteens where they would most benefit soldiers: both at railway stations to serve soldiers in transit and, more dangerously, just behind the battlefront. No matter the flag under which the allied soldiers served, they could find hot or cold drinks, sandwiches, candies, chocolates, cookies, fruit, and a place to relax at an American Red Cross canteen.

It took some persuasion for Andress to get an assignment in the field. She initially worked  in Paris as the assistant to the director of the canteen service, according to Edward Hungerford in his book With the Doughboy in France (1920). Her desire for more active duty was eventually granted. After completing several short-term jobs at canteens in Épernay and Chantilly, she was assigned to direct a small French railway canteen at Toul, on the Moselle River in northeastern France. She arrived in January 1918.

Toul, because of its location on major rail lines and closeness to battlefields at Nancy and Verdun, was becoming an important military center for transporting soldiers, supplies, and equipment. Later that year it would become the headquarters of the US Second Army. Toul often was the last canteen for soldiers headed to the German front and the first for those leaving the battlefield with injuries or on leave.

ARC Rest Station, Toul. June 1918
An ARC worker with soldiers outside the ARC’s tent outside the Toul train station, June 22, 1918. Photo by Lewis W. Hine/American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

It was clear to Andress that the little French canteen at the railway station would need to be re-outfitted to serve more soldiers—many more. She envisioned facilities like those in Paris and Épernay, where she’d been assigned earlier. There soldiers could buy (at minimal cost) not only snacks, sandwiches, and drinks, but also full meals of soup, meat, vegetables, salads, bread, cheese, and eggs. These canteens had sleeping rooms, showers, recreation areas, and rooms for letter-writing or reading. Andress wanted to offer the soldiers stopping off at Toul all these services and comforts. The question was, How?

Her solution was multi-pronged. To give increasing numbers of traveling soldiers easier access to the railway canteen, she moved it into a 50-foot tent in the railway yard. This took copious amounts of persuasion, but Andress kept at it until she secured the necessary authorizations from railroad, military, and Red Cross officials.

Toul, France. Exterior of the American Red Cross Officer's Rest House
Exterior of the American Red Cross Officer’s Rest House, Toul, Nov. 1918. Mary Vail Andress (on the right in the doorway) with her colleague Ruth Smith. The soldiers are Pvt. Herbert Roylance and Pvt. J. Murphy, both of the 51st Pioneers. Joseph, a Frenchman, holds a broom. Photo from the American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

She found and rented a three-story apartment house a short walk from the railroad station. This was converted into a rest house. Twenty-five beds for officers were on the first two floors and eight more for enlisted men on the top floor. Food and showers were also available.

The building that became her main facility, the Hôtel de la Gare, was across the street from the train station. Andress rented it and then adapted it for the needs of soldiers. In the basement, she added showers that could accommodate up to sixteen men at a time. The kitchen produced full meals, thick sandwiches, hot dogs, doughnuts, cookies, and coffee brewed in ten-gallon marmites. Soldiers could buy candies, chocolates, and chewing gum, and canned goods like jam. Other items—toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and blades, soap, towels, combs, brushes, handkerchiefs, underwear, socks, sweaters, cigarettes, playing cards, checkers—were also available, some at minimal cost, some given away. There was a writing room with stationery, postcards, pencils, pens, and ink, as well as a reading room with as many newspapers, magazines, and books as could be collected. There were 400 beds plus a system for announcing trains so that sleeping soldiers didn’t miss their departures.

American Red CrosCanteen & Rest House, at Toul France, Nov. 1918
The American Red Cross Canteen and Rest House at Toul (Meurthe et Moselle), France. ARC director Mary Vail Andress at center front. Photo from the American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Andress and her growing staff worked tirelessly to get each venue operating. Demand was high. By June, during the build-up for major military campaigns conducted in the summer and fall of 1918, the Toul canteen was serving 3,000 troops a day. Days were filled with cooking, baking, cleaning and—above all—friendly and upbeat conversation with soldiers. Shifts could run ten, twelve, fourteen hours or more. The search for supplies and provisions was endless, keeping Andress’s supply officer on the road between ARC warehouses, French and AEF commissaries, and local markets. A new, enlarged canteen was built in the plaza in front of the railway station and a small one placed in the yard on one of the platforms to serve those not able to leave trains. Sometimes even the nighttime was overactive with the sounds of artillery at the not-too-distant front.

ARC Canteen at Toul, France. Nov. 1918
Doughnuts, coffee, and sandwiches at the American Red Cross Canteen at Toul, France, Nov. 1918. Shown: Miss Mildred Cowing, of Wyoming, OH, Miss Mary Vail Andress of Sparta, NY, [third ARC worker is unidentified]. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
As busy as Andress’s Toul operations were during the war, their biggest test came after the November 11, 1918 armistice. For months, hundreds of thousands of AEF soldiers returned from battlefields, passing through Toul as they headed to French ports and home. Shortly after the armistice, 11,000 arrived in a single day. After that, it averaged 6,000-7,000 daily for months, according to Carter H. Harrison, an ARC manager at the Red Cross hospital in Toul who tells much of Andress’s story in his memoir With the American Red Cross in France.

Interior of American Red Cross Enlisted Men's Hotel at Toul, Fra
Soldiers in the lunch room of the American Red Cross Enlisted Men’s Hotel at Toul, Nov. 1918. Photo from the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The Red Cross Bulletin of July 1919, published highlights from a year-end report about the Toul operation, and the article was subsequently reprinted in newspapers across the country. The 1.6 million soldiers who passed through the canteen during the previous eleven months had eaten 1,561,625 well-filled sandwiches, 461,114 doughnuts, and “oceans of coffee, chocolate, and lemonade . . . and pyramids of ice cream” as well as plenty of other food.

The article said that Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, had inspected the canteen and complimented its management. While the article did not mention Mary Vail Andress, the AEF had noticed her extraordinary effort and responsive administration. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her initiative and for displaying “marked foresight and sound judgement, with untiring personal devotion to the interests and comfort of those whom she served.”

In an exceptional salute to her work, Gen. Pershing himself presented her with the medal.

Mary Vail Andress’s Distinguished Service Medal citation:

For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services. On her own initiative she organized and efficiently developed and administered the work of the American Red Cross at Toul, France. Under her wise supervision this work grew from the ministering and supplying of small comforts to soldiers passing through in hospital trains to an undertaking of extensive proportions, which has aided and cheered thousands of men in the service. In the performance of her exacting tasks, she has displayed marked foresight and sound judgement, with untiring personal devotion to the interests and comfort of those whom she served.

 

Sources

Congressional Medal of Honor, The Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal Issued by the War Department Since April 4, 1917 up to and including General Orders, No. 126, War Department, November 11, 1919, Compiled in the Office of the Adjutant General of the Army, 1919 (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1920), p. 840

With the American Red Cross in France, 1918-1919 by Carter Henry Harrison

With the Doughboy in France; a Few Chapters of an American Effort by Edward Hungerford

The American National Red Cross Annual Report For the Year Ended Jane 30, 1918

The Red Cross Bulletin, vol 3: Jan. 7, 1919 p. 7; Jul. 7, 1919 p. 8

“Army Canteens Conducted by American Women”. Washington, D.C., 28 Oct. 1917 via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress

Great Quantities of Food Handled at the Canteen“. Maysville, KY Public Ledger, 28 June 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Captions are based on information provided by the source and information in The Catalogue of Official A.E.F. Photographs Taken by The Signal Corps, U.S.A., War Department Document No. 903, 1919, accessible via Internet Archive or HathiTrust .

Red Cross workers incl MV Andress (woman on left) distributing r National Archives Identifier: 20804532

 

 

ARC Rest Station, Toul. June 1918 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-16624

 

Toul, France. Exterior of the American Red Cross Officer's Rest House Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15425 (digital file from original)

 

 

Exterior of the American Red Cross Headquarters at Toul (Meurthe Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15426

 

ARC Canteen at Toul, France. L-R: Miss Mildred Cowing,  Miss M.V National Archives Identifier: 20803806.  Another version is in the collection of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15423

Interior of American Red Cross Enlisted Men's Hotel at Toul, Fra National Archives Identifier: 20803812

 

 

A version of this article originally appeared in our newsletter on historic businesswomen, The Registry, in 2016.

Copyright 2019 Ferret Research, Inc.

Alva Belmont’s 1914 Conference of Great Women

“A friendly gathering of women of note whose work lies in different fields, but who feel the same big purpose inspiring them all”

by Mary Goljenboom

As I read old newspaper and magazine articles about historic women, I am always curious about who knew whom. It is a small triumph to come across a story that puts several of these historic women together. One recent triumph begins with a plate.

Written on the plate’s rim in blue script is Votes for Women . The plate is a reproduction from a set of stoneware found at Marble House, the home of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont (aka Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont). Today, Marble House is one of the mansions in Newport, RI, that is open to the public. I bought my reproduction at the gift shop. According to Professor Kenneth Florey, the original set of stoneware was made in 1913; Belmont probably had it made for her July 1914 “Conference of Great Women”.

An ardent suffragist, Alva Belmont’s conference was not only about votes for women. According to journalist Doris E. Fleischman, it was “a friendly gathering of women of note whose work lies in different fields, but who feel the same big purpose inspiring them all, to make practical the connotation of the vague term betterment.” It allowed Belmont to draw attention to issues important to her: American women’s status and accomplishments, and her own status in New York society. She liked publicity.

Belmont used the visit of her daughter, the Duchess of Marlborough (née Consuelo Vanderbilt), as the celebrity hook to assure newspaper coverage and attendance by members of New York society. The duchess was more than just a society matron; in England, her work providing help to the wives and children of men who were in prison and building hostels for young working women was respected.

Eight women shared the dais with the duchess. The ones most interesting to me all had notable careers as leaders and administrators. They worked to improve social welfare and believed that women’s suffrage improved their chances of accomplishing their goals.

Florence Kelley, the general secretary of National Consumers’ League since 1899 and leader of the organization’s efforts to abolish child labor and secure legislation for a minimum wage and an eight hour work day.

Rose Schneiderman, vice president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League (later president), who, throughout her long career as a union administrator and organizer, championed working women and sought work rules and legislation to protect them.

Mary M. Bartelme, the assistant judge of the juvenile court of Cook County, IL, (later circuit court judge) whose innovative practices for dealing with girls in the justice system became a model for other juvenile courts.

Maud Ballington Booth, the co-founder of Volunteers of America and leader of its work in rehabilitating prisoners and assisting prisoners’ families.

Katharine B. Davis, the newly appointed commissioner of corrections for the city of New York, who worked to reform prisons, abolishing widespread graft and corruption.

In addition to the speakers, journalist Doris Fleischman, who covered the conference for the New York Tribune, also had a notable career. She wrote feature articles and a book about women’s careers in business and the professions, and was an executive in the public relations firm her husband founded, Edward L. Bernays.

The results of the “Conference of Great Women” were mixed. The speech by the Duchess of Marlborough was covered in newspapers across the country, as was the new Chinese Tea House on the grounds of Marble House (another hook Belmont used to get publicity). Most of the speakers were listed in articles, so they received some attention, but the duchess got most of the space. The New York Tribune gave Doris Fleischman’s coverage of the conference, which included a synopsis of each talk along with photos and an opinion piece, a full page—far more than most other publications.

The conference received publicity for its causes, but some felt Belmont had simply put on a publicity stunt. Even speakers had opinions. According to historian Sylvia D. Hoffert, Rose Schneiderman felt afterward that very little would be accomplished. “I was furious with myself for attending,” she wrote in her memoir.* Florence Kelley wrote a thank you note to Belmont full of gratitude and praise. “No one could fail to feel at the time that the audience was receptive and responsive. The editorials which have come to me from many parts of the country show the press to have been respectful and largely sympathetic. You must feel great satisfaction in having helped, on a nationwide scale . . .”**

One hundred years after the conference, the replica of the plate is a reminder of these women, whose careers as managers and administrators are usually overlooked, and of the day they stood together to publicize women’s abilities and the importance of votes for women.

 

Notes and Sources
The other speakers were: Kate M. Gordon, president of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference; Helen Ring Robinson, Colorado’s first female state senator; Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and president of the Women’s Political Union.

* Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights by Sylvia D. Hoffert, p. 103

** The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-1931 edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Beverly Wilson Palmer, p. 197

Read Doris E. Fleishman’s coverage in the New York Tribune, July 12, 1914 at Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress

A reproduction cup and saucer from Alva Belmont’s Votes for Women set  are for sale at the Newport Mansions website of The Preservation Society of Newport County (scroll down towards the bottom of the page)

For more information about Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and her daughter, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, see Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s book Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt

 

Copyright 2014 Ferret Research, Inc.