Sister “Whimsey”, a Knitting Nurse

All right, I was going to work on finishing a post (now a two, possibly three part entry) on interpreting motorcars from the 1920s at Fort Edmonton Park, but I was distracted by the Flickr page of Library and Archives Canada. Specifically, a photograph spotted in the Alice Isaacson set, which is composed of photographs taken of Canadians (by a Canadian, I presume?) in France at the end of the First World War. I have already tweeted several fascinating images of the effects of from that collection – the shell of a downed Zeppelin, a view of an airplane above the Place de la Bastille, ca. 1918, taken from the cockpit of another airplane, and this interesting photograph of people gathered around what appears to be a motorcar that has driven into a shell hole in the middle of a street.

However, this image in particular caught my attention:

Nursing sister Catherine Wymbs, No. 6 Canadian General Hospital, Troyes, France. MIKAN 1965681

Nursing sister Catherine Wymbs, No. 6 Canadian General Hospital, Troyes, France.
MIKAN 1965681. Courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada Flickr page, original entry here.

Now, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions before, one of the roles I had the opportunity to play last year at Fort Edmonton Park, a living history museum, was that of a nurse, a veteran of the Great War. I created a composite character, whom I called Nancy Sparrow. The bird last name may be a thinly veiled allusion to another famous nurse who lived several generations prior to this particular war, as well as a tip of the hat to the nickname for Canadian nurses during the war, the “bluebirds”. Canadian nurses, unlike British or French ones, were not volunteers, and despite the wimple (the head scarf) were not Catholic nuns, but paid officers in the Canadian military, often beginning with the rank of Lieutenant (though they were addressed as “Sister”). (Incidentally, always pronounced “Left-tenant” in Canada, not “loo-tenant”, which is the logical and American way of pronouncing the title.) These ladies were highly trained professionals and, in a rarity for their era, had equal pay to men of equivalent rank. Unlike nurses from other countries, too, they were officially officers, and so could attend officer’s socials. Canadians also had the nicest uniforms (a lovely blue, hence the nickname “Bluebirds”, not the odd grey you see Lady Sybil wearing in Series Two of Downton Abbey.) But I may be biased. That uniform is quite smart.

(The First World War costumes on 1920s street, just as an interesting side note, were purchased at auction in Calgary, and are in fact largely extra’s outfits from Paul Gross’ movie Passchendaele. With only a handful of exceptions, the other outfits at Fort Edmonton are made by a very dedicated costumer and her team.)

One of the tricky things for me as an interpreter wearing that uniform and professing to be living in 1920 was explaining, well, why I was still in uniform now that the war was over and I was “home”. It was quite easy if I were running a program – giving a speech for a Chautauqua exposition on the Importance of Cleanliness in Our Modern Age, or calling to order a meeting of a society of nurses. Then, I would be expected to don the uniform because I was functioning in an official capacity. It was trickier if I had to, say, cover another interpreter for lunch and stay at Mellon Farm in uniform. Then, if I were living there, I would be expected to change into my own clothes (my mother is a modern day nurse, and I can assure you she changes out of her scrubs as soon as she gets home). I often had the excuse that I was making a house call, and that worked quite well. Many Canadian nurses weren’t demobbed until 1921, and the man who lived next to Mellon Farm, historically, was a demobilized soldier, and there were several hospitals in Edmonton in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, simply because the war officially ends does not mean that there are no sick or injured to care for.

Often, I found myself knitting while in uniform. (I didn’t have many wounded to care for, surprisingly, as an interpreter.) It is a perfect activity to do if there aren’t too many visitors present; it gives me something to do with my hands so I don’t fidget, and is an excellent conversation starter when visitors spot me. I am not the kind of costumed interpreter to lie in wait and metaphorically pounce on visitors when they come into the room. I much prefer to be going about my day and have them stumble across me in the middle of an activity – it feels far more “authentic”, less forced of an interaction… and of course you have a ready made conversation starter: what are you doing? What are you making?

Socks are excellent things to knit. Many people are also surprised to learn that they are also associated with the First World War. In the twenty-first century, when most people picture knitters they still picture elderly ladies with crocheted shawls, spectacles, and at least one cat in the vicinity. Knitting, however, is becoming more and more popular among the youth – at least, you’ll see me knitting on the bus, and I have spotted people in cafés doing it as well. If you don’t believe me that it’s becoming a hip and trendy thing for the youth of today, check out the blogs of the Yarn Harlot and others. But during the war, having a good pair of clean, warm and dry socks could make all the difference for a soldier – it could prevent trench foot, which men were prone to get in the muddy conditions if they didn’t remove their boots for days on end. In essence, it is gangrene of the foot. Gangrene of anything isn’t pleasant. Don’t do a Google image search. It’s nasty.

"Our Boys Need Sox." American Red Cross Poster, 1914-1918. Library of Congress.

“Our Boys Need Sox.” American Red Cross Poster, 1914-1918. Library of Congress, via the Ghosts of 1914 blog.

One of the things women and little girls were urged to do on the home front was “Knit Your Bit”. Socks were particularly favoured because, contrary to modern assumptions, they were considered beginner’s projects. (Honestly, I find knitting on the round, particularly with circular needles, far easier for beginner knitters to learn. They can survive only knowing one stitch – knitting – and can properly master it before having to switch to purling. Furthermore, the part that beginner knitters seem to have most trouble with? Switching when you reach the end of the row. Knitting on the round means no row switching. Also, turning the heel can be incredibly easy depending on the pattern you use. End parenthesis.) Socks could be made even simpler by forgetting about turning the heel and making a simple knitted tube, closed at one end: an amputation sleeve, sadly also needed. Don’t believe me? You can view and download sewing and knitting patterns from the First World War here. The American Red Cross and other organizations circulated such documents so volunteer knitters on the home front could produce standardized garments which were much needed in the military hospitals.

What do I mean to say with this long and rambling post? Don’t be surprised if a nurse in full uniform sits down to knit a sock or two. (Usually two are required.) Knitting remained popular well past the war – a whole generation of women had grown up encouraged to knit in class and may have found that they enjoyed having something, practical or intricate, drop off their needles in their idle moments. Your knitting project could save someone’s life, or limb.

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One Response to Sister “Whimsey”, a Knitting Nurse

  1. Pingback: Knit Your Bit: Arm Yourselves With Knitting Needles, Friends of Rutherford House! | History Research Shenanigans

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