Sunday, May 14, 2017

Collecting Moss for Uncle Sam

The Seattle Star, 3 April 1918, pg 4.
The Red Cross was a relatively small organization – just 107 chapters in 1914 – before the United States entered the Great War. With the outbreak of war, however, the organization experienced phenomenal growth. The number of local chapters grew to 3,864 by 1918 and membership increased from 17,000 to over 20 million adult and 11 million Junior Red Cross members.

A unique activity coordinated by the Red Cross during this period was the collection of sphagnum moss for wound packing. Sphagnum moss played an important part during World War I as a substitute for cotton gauze dressings. Dried moss can absorb up to twenty times its volume of liquid, including blood, and is superior to cotton dressing material for staunching wounds. Moss retains liquids better and distributes liquids more uniformly. It was cooler, softer, and less irritating than cotton, and could be produced more rapidly and more cheaply. Dried moss also has effective antibacterial properties due to its acidity. 

The Seattle Times, 16 June 1918, pg. 3.
Moss was certainly in great supply in the damp Pacific Northwest, which contributed 60% of the sphagnum moss collected for use during the war. University of Washington botany professor and Red Cross Northwest Division director John W. Hotson began identifying moss gathering locations in Washington in March 1918, when the American Red Cross authorized the use of the moss for bandages.

Red Cross volunteers around the Pacific Northwest organized work parties to bring in moss for making into bandages. Between October 1917 and November 1918, 595,540 moss bandages were made by Red Cross volunteers in Washington, Oregon, and Maine. Moss drives took place in South Bend, Long Beach, Ilwaco and Chinook gathering 90,000 pounds of moss which was spread out to dry before being sent to Seattle to be sewn into bandages.

The Sunday Seattle Times, 14 October 1917, pg 5.
In Seattle, and other cities around the Pacific Northwest, university students and women's clubs made bandages out of the dried moss. Women did most of the work of preparing the moss and putting together the bandages, often in addition to working at home or in a workplace all day. At the University of Washington women received course credit for making bandages. Some girls were tasked with picking over the moss while other more experienced girls made the bandages. As the war continued high school students were enlisted to help with picking over the moss so the university girls could devote their time entirely to the making of the bandages.

The doctors and the nurses
Look North with eager eyes,
And call on us to send them
The dressing that they prize
No other in its equal -
In modest bulk it goes,
Until it meets the gaping wound
Where the red life blood flows,
The spreading, swelling in its might
It checks the fatal loss,
And kills the germ, and heals the hurt
The kindly Sphagnum Moss.
Mrs A. M. Smith (1917). A member of the Edinburgh War Dressings Supply organisation.

Learn more about sphagnum moss:
  1. Hotson, John William. Sphagnum as Surgical Dressing. Seattle, WA : Northwest Division of the American Red Cross, 1918.
  2. The Home Guard. University of Washington Tyee, 1918, pp. 22-23.
  3. Sphagnum Moss - Voices of War and Peace.
  4. Sphagnum moss and the 1914–18 war - The Pharmaceutical Journal blog, 26 March 2009.
  5. Wound dressing in World War I - The kindly Sphagnum Moss - Field Bryology, No. 110, November 2013.
  6. How Humble Moss Healed the Wounds of Thousands in World War I 28 April 2017.