Dumbarton House Goes To War

Originally compiled by Mary McCleary

As America moved onto a wartime footing in early 1942, the NSCDA was anxious to support the war effort in every way possible. Many Dames enlisted in various branches of the Armed Forces and rendered distinguished service. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America offered the use of Dumbarton House to the District Chapter of the American Red Cross for use as classrooms and workrooms. Several State Societies also offered their own headquarters houses to the Red Cross for similar work in their communities. 

In March 1942, the National Society formally presented the property to the Red Cross. The Washington Post reported, “For the duration of the war, Dumbarton House, one of the oldest in Georgetown, stripped of its priceless furniture, will cease to be a show place and will become a workroom where the Red Cross will conduct classes and produce garments for the armed services.” Mrs. Joseph B. Hutchinson, chairman of the NSCDA presentation committee urged all Colonial Dames in Washington to work for the Colonial Dames Unit of the Red Cross. Mrs. Wilcox, General Secretary of Dumbarton House, agreed to continue to live in the house and assist with the modifications. The National Society kept the library in the east wing for its own use, but furniture, portraits and ornaments displayed in the period rooms of the central block were removed to the upper floor. Linoleum was used to cover the antique wood floors. 

Photo: Dumbarton House during World War II. Note the Red Cross flag hanging from the front portico.

The Red Cross intended to use three of the four major rooms for classes in First Aid, Home Nursing, and Nutrition. In the first year of operation, the Red Cross held 25 courses of five weeks each, with 750 students receiving certificates. The fourth room was dedicated to “Production.” To furnish this unit, Miss Agnes Peter, a member of the Colonial Dames’ Unit of the Red Cross, and Mrs. Willcox made caps and veils for sale. The proceeds from the sales, together with contributions from members of the Society, purchased long modern tables, sturdy chairs, rulers, whalebones, and six electric sewing machines. During the first summer alone, the ladies made 172 articles of clothing. 

When it became known that bandage production was another great need, one classroom was converted to a production room. To purchase the necessary tables and supplies, Miss Peter and Mrs. Willcox kindly stepped into the breach and made caps and veils again. A charming anecdote in the National Society’s records notes, “Fortunately for us, but not for them (Miss Peter and Mrs. Willcox), the style in caps had been changed, and so we had another market”! 

Miss Peter’s brother, Rev. G. Freeland Peter, gave the invocation at the presentation of the House in 1942 and the returning ceremony in 1945. His wife, the former Lulie Whitlock Nolting, served on the Colonial Dames’ Unit of the Red Cross’s Committee, of which Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt was Honorary Chairman. Their brother, Armistead Peter, Jr., was the owner of Tudor Place, at which the first meeting of the NSCDA was completed in 1893. Their grandmother, Mrs. Beverley Kennon, had presided at that meeting in her capacity as vice president of The National Society upon the illness of the president. 

Classes and production units were conducted at Dumbarton House from May 1, 1942 to July 1, 1945. During this time, more than 2,300 garments (chiefly shirts, dresses, and outer-garments) had been made; and over 200,000 dressings had been packed and sealed at the House. The latter work was done without further inspection, a rare distinction of great pride to the workers. All the classes and work took place in roasting heat in the summer and in freezing cold rooms when the oil rations ran out in winter. The young girls from the National Cathedral School who worked on Saturdays added a great deal of gaiety. 

Photo: Library of Congress. A typical “Production Unit” making bandages. Note the ‘long table and sturdy chairs, as well as the cap and veil.’

The formal “Ceremony of The Returning of Dumbarton House to the NSCDA” by the Red Cross took place on October 30, 1945. In accepting the tribute of General Keefer, Mrs. Ethelbert Ide Low, the President of the National Society, said “three and a half years ago we also stood in these same rooms at Dumbarton House with heavy hearts, at the beginning of the war. With little ceremony, we gave these rooms to the Red Cross for the duration. The time has been long and much has taken place, but our beloved Country has come out victorious–when the call for country comes, the National Society of Colonial Dames will not be found wanting.”