Jimmy Price, education specialist at the U.S. Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee, spotlights a century-old woman's garment from a global conflict.
World War I YMCA uniform
Dating to 1844, the Young Men's Christian Association benefited from women, too, during World War I. So did American soldiers abroad.
The YMCA used the services of about 35,000 volunteers during the war, and it performed 90% of all "welfare" (human service) work with the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, according to its records. Women ages 24 to 45 could serve with the Y during the conflict, and the first arrived in France in June 1917.
The following month, Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt – daughter-in-law of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt – established the first of the Y’s famous canteens (small restaurants) in Paris. Another notable contribution: She designed the uniform that thousands of other female Y volunteers would wear during the war.
The uniform was first issued in November 1917; this one belonged to Helen Coates of the central Wisconsin city of Wausau, who arrived in Europe the following year.
A violinist, Coates spent eight months in the Entertainment Service, denoted by a horizontal patch on the service coat's right sleeve that reads “Entertainment.” A triangular YMCA patch is underneath.
On the left sleeve, the overseas stripe reflects her service, and the Army’s I Corps patch designates the unit to which Coates was assigned.
The front of the coat features a World War I victory medal with one star to denote participation in a campaign.
Coates supported the American war effort by using her musical talents to play for the doughboys fighting in France. She did so during and after the war, and her service took her through many memorable scenes from France to Germany. She would play two or three violin concerts per day in any available venue – from posh hotels to American battleships.
“We played in everything from barns to airplane hangars,” Coates recalled in a July 1919 story in the Wausau Daily Record-Herald about her return home. “One time we gave an entertainment to a large gathering of doughboys in a barn. ... It was bitterly cold and the soldiers stood in mud or sat on the rafters listening.” She added: “The boys are wonderfully appreciative.”
The uniform cost a hefty $125 in its day. YMCA volunteers were allowed to purchase their uniforms after discharge, and Coates did so when she completed her service.
Coates passed away in 1990, and her uniform was donated to the U.S. Army Women's Museum by family member Frederick Roddy in 2010. It is on display as a tribute to the thousands of women who volunteered to assist their country during "the war to end all wars.”