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Red Cross poster collection at Hagerstown office draws praise

May 24, 2008|By MARIE GILBERT

HAGERSTOWN -- It's an image that tugs at the heartstrings -- an orphaned child clutching a doll, standing in the burning rubble of a war-torn European village.

The year is 1940, and F. Sands Brunner has delivered a message of patriotism and morality through his artwork.

Just a year earlier, Germany had invaded Poland. Now, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg were falling to the Nazis.

With his painting, Brunner showed the misery and suffering of millions of European refugees affected by World War II. It also inspired financial assistance from the United States.

Appropriately named "War Relief -- Give!", the illustration became a well-recognized poster for the American Red Cross.

Today, the original print is one of about 250 posters owned by the Washington County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Walk through the doors of the chapter's Hagerstown offices on Conrad Court and you begin a history lesson.

Wall after wall is decorated with framed and matted posters dating to 1917. More posters are in storage, waiting their turn to go public.

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"As far as we know, as a chapter, we have the largest Red Cross collection of original print posters in the United States," Executive Director Julie Barr Strasburg said. "It's quite impressive."

The posters not only depict America's history, but the history of the Red Cross, she said.

There are posters for nursing recruitment, some that depict the organization's early involvement in the fight against tuberculosis and polio, and others that focus on disaster relief.

But the most famous, are the posters from World Wars I and II, Strasburg said.

It was an era when visual mass communication was limited, and posters became a vital medium, she said.

They could be placed anywhere and could provide constant reminders to those at home of their role in the war effort.

Many distinguished artists and illustrators were commissioned to produce poster designs, including N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and Howard Chandler Christy.

Today, many of the posters are considered fine art.

Each era of posters has a distinctive look, Strasburg said.

The illustrations from World War I tend to be more solemn and are mainly black and white, she said. But by the 1930s and '40s, the artwork became more colorful and appealing and focused on galvanizing Americans' patriotic emotions. Posters were used to build support for Liberty Loans, encourage enlistment in the military and honor the Red Cross nurse and her tireless work.

Strasburg said the local chapter's collection gradually has grown over the years, and she credits Beulah T. Meyers with nurturing and expanding the collection. Meyers served over the years as executive secretary, secretary to the board of directors and chapter chairman for the local Red Cross.

"During the 1950s and 1960s, she combed antique shops searching for Red Cross posters. She would also write to other chapters across the U.S., offering to trade posters or make purchases," Strasburg said. "This was all before eBay and the Internet, so everything was handwritten and time-consuming. But she was very dedicated to this project."

Strasburg said the project was fully supported by the local chapter's first executive director, Jeanne Cooey Vollmer.

"And now, I've taken on the responsibility," Strasburg said. "Beulah started the whole thing, but each of us has built upon her efforts. I feel a kindred spirit to her -- like I'm the guardian of the posters."

Strasburg said most people don't realize these posters exist unless they visit the Red Cross offices.

"Since we moved to our new headquarters four years ago from South Prospect Street, a lot of groups have come here for meetings or special events and we always get the same reaction -- 'Wow, these are great,'" she said.

Strasburg said the posters originally were displayed in black frames. But when the chapter moved to its new location, the posters received a fresher look.

"They were completely redone," she said, including new frames, matting and acid-free paper for preservation.

During the 1980s, many of the chapter's posters were on exhibit at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

"But our collection has grown so much since then, I would love, in the near future, to open our doors to the public and do a walking tour, room by room, of all our posters," she said.

But, first, she said, "We want to do an inventory, date them and identify the artists. There's a lot of work involved in keeping track of everything we have."

Strasburg said the American Red Cross still produces posters. An example is "You Delivered Hope," a poster saluting volunteers who helped during Hurricane Katrina.

"But personally, I don't think today's posters have the character that the older ones do," she said. "And now they tend to use photographs instead of artwork -- a trend that started during the Vietnam War era."

While Strasburg is proud of the poster collection, she said she still is looking to enhance it.

"Over the years, I've taken on a crusade to add as many Red Cross posters to our collection as I can," she said. "These posters are our legacy to the chapter."

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