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The National League of Women's Services, 1918

Jul 29, 2010 3:19 PM | 6 comments

Dorothy L. Betts of Brooklyn at Fort Totten, 1918

In 1970, 80 year-old Dorothy L. Betts of Park Slope (in 1918 at the right), donated a set of eleven photographs featuring the National League of Woman's Service.  From the census, I learned that Miss Betts was an only child who grew up in a stately brownstone on 8th Avenue between 1st Street and Garfield (the same residence she occupied at the time of her donation).  Miss Betts was born in 1890.  In 1918, she would have been 28 years old and an ideal candidate for joining the National League of Woman's Services. 

The National League of Woman's Services was a civilian volunteer organization that formed in conjunction with the Red Cross during the First World War.  The League provided stateside war services such as feeding, caring for and transporting soliders, veterans and war workers.  In New York, the League was particularly attractive to young socialites who had time and money to donate. (One Times article noted that the chairwomen had to remind her eager volunteers that work was "not the place for" jewelry and lace blouses).

The two divisions in these images are the Motor Corps and the Canteen Division.  The Motor Corps provided transport and ambulatory service to military personnel in the local region.  Volunteers in the Motor Corps had to fulfill several requirements:  hold a State chauffeur's license and a mechanic's license, take the oath of allegiance, pass a medical examination, receive a typhoid inoculation and (most importantly) own a car.  Members of the Corps were required to wear a khaki uniform and were on-call at all hours of the day.  Over time, the Corps also collected ambulances and trucks that made it possible to handle a variety of requests, including the transport of troops and goods over long distances outside of New York. 

The Motor Corps was one of the most demanding and militaristic divisions of the League.  In September 1918, 120 volunteers from New York and Brooklyn were required to attend a one-week military training camp at Fort Totten.  It was the first time any such training had been completed for the League.  During the week, volunteers were commanded by U.S. Army officers and stayed in official military barracks.  Each woman was allowed one suitcase with the most basic of provisions.  The training included "ambulance driving, litter carrying, first aid, drill, and army cooking" (New York Times, 1918).  At the end of the week, the volunteers completed a formal pass and review for the officers and then returned to Manhattan for a parade along Fifth Avenue. 

Brooklyn National League for Woman's Service Motor Corps in barracks at Fort Totten, 1918

Brooklyn National League of Woman's Service Motor Corps drillings at Fort Totten, 1918

Brooklyn National League for Woman's Service Motor Corps at Fort Totten, 1918

Brooklyn National League for Woman's Service Motor Corps at Fort Totten, 1918

The League's Canteen Division was called upon to provide food service during the week of training.  The Canteen Division, of which Miss Betts was a member, provided "emergency food" to soldiers.  Once the country began to mobilize in 1917, New York was a major hub of activitiy.  The Canteen Division was on call 24 hours a day to supply food to the many soldiers arriving by train and departing by boat.  Volunteers were be called at home and asked to arrive, in uniform, at a determined location to distribute sandwiches, fruit, coffee and more to the masses of soldiers.  In addition, the Canteen Division established dining halls for war workers and veterans in the city and catered meals for holidays and special occasions.  In preparation for one particular military parade in 1918, the Division made 17,000 sandwiches in 2 days (roughly 425 sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper, every hour).  In these photographs, we see a slightly calmer atmosphere, as the "canteeners" serve their sisters in service. 

Brooklyn National League for Woman's Service at mess Fort Totten, 1918

Brooklyn National League of Woman's Service Canteeners in Barrack Kitchen, Fort Totten, 1918 (Miss Betts is holding the platter at the table.)

Brooklyn National League of Woman's Service Canteen at Fort Totten, 1918 (Miss Betts is second from the window at the right.)

It is unclear how Miss Betts obtained these pictures.  I suspect she purchased them directly from the photographer whose signature appears in the bottom corner of each photo:  "Fallon, Whitestone, New York."  The pictures are not numbered chronologically, indicating that more may have been taken.  Three of our images include Miss Betts and the others give a well-rounded view of the week's activities.  We are grateful that she chose to donate them here, helping us understand another chapter in the story of the Brooklyn war effort.     

  Brooklyn National League for Woman's Service, 1918

Many thanks to the useful sources that helped me interpret these photographs:  For God, for Country, for Home: the National League for Woman's Service by Besside Rowland James (1920), Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age by Virginia Scharff (1992), and The New York Times (1917-1918)



7/29/2010 9:04:18 PM #

Great post; thanks!

I say, are the census records you consulted to learn about Ms. Betts's youth accessible online, and if so where?

Save the Slope

7/30/2010 10:15:08 AM #

Glad you enjoyed the post!  The census (through 1930) is available online, but only via paid genealogy sites like  The Brooklyn Collection has a subscription to Ancestry (which is what I used) and patrons are able to use it for free during our open hours.  You're welcome to drop by or make an appointment:  718-230-2762.  Hope to see you!


10/13/2010 5:36:30 PM #

Thank you so much! helped me out a lot on a project!


4/20/2012 8:55:39 AM #

i teach American History in a Catholic high school in LA and I recently received a gift a a complete uniform for a canteen worker in the National League of Woman's Service and I came to your website for information. I found your listing very informative and I will use this in discussing the uniform and the lady who wore it with my classes. I plan on putting the uniform on a mannequin.

Gary Phillips

9/30/2012 2:44:54 PM #

My grandmother was a proud member of the National League for Women's Service Motor Corp at its conception.  I have a wonderful picture of her "Abigial Tallman (Austin)"in uniform and have a lovely solid gold pin with the wheel and wings.  Perhaps someone would be interested in a copy of the photo and and pin.

Gail E Moore

12/7/2012 8:40:56 PM #

I am from a group of friends who drive antique automobiles.  We enter our local San Jose, CA  Veteran's Day Parade each year, representing our men & women who have served during World War 1.  Our cars are 1918 T Fords and earlier.
We all wear original Army, Navy and Marine uniforms. We women wear Women's Motor Corps Uniforms and drive the cars.  Would it be possible to purchase 8 x 10 copies of the Motor Corps women's photos in this article?  Thanks, Margie Lehto.  Three of the men march in a 3 man color guard.

Margie Lehto