As commemorations across the country mark the centennial of American involvement in the First World War, consider the story of the Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania (EAP), a women’s organization founded to help wounded soldiers and distressed civilians alike.
At the outbreak of the conflict in 1914, a plurality of Philadelphians – like most Americans – favored a policy of neutrality toward the European war.
However, “in a modern world war, proclamations of neutrality are almost meaningless. The complications of 20th-century life necessarily impose war upon all, innocent and guilty, neutral and belligerent, rich and poor,” reflected the Philadelphia War History Committee in 1922. “There is no escape.”
Poster entreating Americans to “help the orphans of British soldiers sailors & mine-sweepers.” From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania war posters collection [V95]
Appeals for relief poured in from countries directly and indirectly affected by the conflict.
In October 1914, eight women resolved “that a Philadelphia women’s committee be formed to meet the emergencies resulting from the war in Europe, and to devise such relief as may be deemed wise and effective.” The result – first called the Emergency Aid Committee – was soon known around the world as Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania.
EAP was the first organization in the city to send money and supplies to overseas civilians affected by the war. At the time, Philadelphia lacked an American Red Cross chapter.
Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania War Relief Committee members in Philadelphia circa 1914, after World War I began. The women’s group was formed to aid soldiers and civilians overseas. From the Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania records.
Everything from books and Christmas kits to serums, anesthetics, and portable baths were gathered and sent “over there.” By 1917, EAP branches were organized throughout the commonwealth, with offices in several European countries. Before the rubbishing of German-American relations, EAP supported needy German and Austrian civilians along with their Belgian, Serbian, and French counterparts.
In several instances, the welfare of entire French towns and hamlets were placed under EAP’s auspices. The high street in Northern France’s Frières-Faillouël still bears the name “Rue de Philadelphie” in homage to EAP’s efforts.
Exterior photograph of the EAP’s Committee of Supplies headquarters at 1724 Chestnut Street. From the Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania records.
Fund-raising was far from EAP’s only role. Uniformed members raced to the Chateau-Theirry battlefield after the wounded began to stream back, rushing ice cream to field hospitals to relieve soldiers’ fevers. “They called our girls the ice cream angels,” the director of Emergency Aid’s Paris office remarked in 1918.
Nearly $60 million worth of relief was raised across Pennsylvania during 1917 and 1918 alone. Under the headline “Women Did Big Work,” the Harrisburg Telegraph estimated that the per-capita contribution of Pennsylvanians was $6.82, roughly $100 today per person.
After the 1918 Armistice, EAP helped to combat the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic. It also provided relief during the Second World War. The organization soon grew to become one of the largest of its kind for women in the region, and it continues today as the Emergency Aid of Pennsylvania Foundation Inc.
During the First World War, foreign-born soldiers represented nearly 1 out of 5 servicemen in the U.S. Army. Explore their legacy in HSP’s FREE program on May 24, “Americans All!”