Today’s artifact is a World War I service flag, donated by Gladys Benson. Owned by John William and Elizabeth Settle Benson of Brookeville, Montgomery County, it honored the military service of Lewis Wilson Benson (1896-1968), John’s son with his first wife, and Edwin Haines Chinn (1894-1917), Elizabeth’s nephew who had lived with the Bensons since 1908. The 16″ by 24″ flag is made of treated cotton (a stamp on the back says it’s “insect proof”) with two blue stars appliqued to the front and the back. On the front, the top-most blue star has been pasted over with gold paper.

The service or “blue star” flag was first designed and popularized in 1917, at the start of the US involvement in World War I. Blue stars indicate family members serving in war; gold stars honor those who gave their lives. The service flag – and other versions of the design, including lapel pins, tie tacks, and the like – was widely used during both World Wars; it was (and is) a powerful symbol of both pride in service and the human cost of war, and the imagery has been used in posters, magazines, advertisements, and even sheet music illustrations. Although the flag received official recognition from the government as early as the fall of 1917, it was not a regulated image until the 1960s, when the Department of Defense instituted design and manufacture standards. The flag is traditionally hung in the front window of one’s home or office, although I’ve seen many blue star stickers on cars in the DC area.

But back to the Bensons, and Edwin Chinn. Edwin and his brother Raleigh, born in Virginia, came to live in Brookeville with their aunt Elizabeth and her family in the early 1900s. Edwin was part of the first round of local Army recruits in September of 1917; an article in the Washington Post on September 29th described the “rousing send-off” given by 2,000 county residents to the “60 young men of the county who left for Camp Meade this afternoon.” After serving briefly with 307th Ammunition Train, Company B, Edwin died of pneumonia at Fort McPherson on December 30, 1917; his sister Eliza, a trained nurse, was at his side. It is believed that Edwin was the first Montgomery County resident to give his life for his country in World War I.

Edwin Chinn at age 21, 1915. Photo courtesy his niece, Jane Sween.

His step-cousin Lewis Benson fared somewhat better; he was inducted in May 1918 and honorably discharged in September 1919, having served overseas for eleven months with the 304 Sanitary Train and the 313 Ambulance Company. He was injured in service, and died in 1968 after spending many years at a VA Hospital in Cecil County. Both Edwin and Lewis are buried in Rockville Cemetery; Edwin’s stone contains the epitaph “The first soldier from Montg. Co. Md. to give his life in the Great War,” while Lewis’ stone notes simply “World War I.”

As for the flag itself, John and Elizabeth Benson hung it in their home in Brookeville, with Edwin’s gold star and Lewis’ blue star on display for their neighbors to see. The red cotton on the front is faded from the sun to a dark orange color, and there are two darns at the top corners, as if it had been hung up so long that it ripped the fabric. We don’t have a picture of the Benson home with the flag on display, but this poignant photo from World War II shows a Silver Spring home with six blue star flags in the windows.

For more on the history and use of the service flag visit the American Legion’s page.


In honor of the last day of March – which is both Women’s History Month and Red Cross Month – we have an American Red Cross cap, dating from World War I.   It is a dark blue cap with a white voile brim, and  a small badge with a red cross and the date 1919 pinned to one side.

This cap was donated by Katherine Riggs Poole, and most likely belonged to her sister, Martha Sprigg Poole. Martha Poole (1890-1972) was descended from the Pooles of Poolesville, and although she and her sister grew up and lived much of their lives in Washington DC, both were active in Montgomery County’s social circles. During WWI, Miss Poole helped to found the Montgomery County Chapter of the American Red Cross, then based in Rockville (I believe it is now part of the National Capital Area chapter).

According to the “History of the Home Service Section of the Montgomery County Chapter of the American Red Cross,” written around 1920, Miss Martha Sprigg Poole was appointed Rockville chairman of the “Civilian Relief Committee” (which evolved into the Home Service Committee) on September 22nd, 1917.  The Committee was responsible for identifying the needs of, and coordinating aid for, the families of servicemen: “The plan is not only to care for the families in a financial way, but to be of friendly service and use in whatever emergency may arise in a soldier’s [or sailor’s] family. . . . Our strong desire is to foster a spirit of cooperation and good-will among our enlisted men, and to make them feel that there is at home a committee of intelligent and interested friends, under Red Cross organization and management, ready all the time to help their families to tide over the trying period of war conditions.” (From a memo titled “Social and Welfare Committee.”) One major project was a “census of men in military services,” which involved going door to door; these census takers probably wore their uniforms in order to reassure the families of their legitimate association with the Red Cross, a concern which is emphasized throughout the written census-taking instructions.

Both Martha and Kitty Poole were active in the early days of the Montgomery County Historical Society – Martha served as the editor of our journal, the Montgomery County Story, for many years – so it is interesting to note that even while she was working to help the families of servicemen, she was concerned with preserving the records of the County’s war workers. Late in the war, she wrote to the heads of various agencies and departments in the county, asking for a summary of their work for posterity (one gentlemen declined, baldly stating that he saw no possible use for such a document. Well, then!). Martha Poole was also on the Montgomery County Committee of the Maryland War Records Commission, which in 1929 presented the “official roster” of county servicemen to the Montgomery County Commissioners.

I’ve not yet found the perfect website (or book) to assist me in dating our various Red Cross uniform pieces with much accuracy; if anyone reading this is an aficionado, please feel free to send me additional information about the style of the cap, the meaning of the badge, or anything else you’d like to share.  As for Miss Poole’s records of her work with the Home Service Committee, those are in our library, preserved for posterity as their author wished.

"the cannonball"We call this “the cannonball.”  It is 18″ in circumference, and weighs 27 pounds (hence its nickname).  If I dropped this on my foot it would do some damage, but the “cannonball” is not a projectile; it’s a giant ball of gum and tobacco product wrappers, probably intended for recycling to help the war effort during one of the World Wars.

This impressive item was donated in 1986 by Miss Lona Huck, whose family came from Takoma Park. Unfortunately, while the donor was forthcoming on the history of the rest of the donation, the “cannonball” was described only (if accurately) as a “heavy ball made of foil.” One of my predecessors guessed it was created during World War II, but I think it more likely to date from World War I (at least in its inception) as it was possibly started by Joseph C. Huck (1844-1931), the donor’s father. One of Mr. Huck’s sons served in World War I; perhaps this was a father’s way of helping the war effort. Or perhaps another family member started it during the scrap-metal collecting efforts during the Second World War. Or maybe it was just a hobby, a personal collection, started by one of the Huck children and worked on for years; at any rate, if it was destined for the recycling bin it never got there.

Miss Huck has passed away, and I haven’t located any other descendants who might have some insight on the origins of the County’s Heaviest Ball of Foil. An expert on foil could probably tell me the correct timeframe, at least of the outer layer, but experts on foil are not thick on the ground. The consensus among my colleagues is that there’s no way just foil could weigh 27 pounds; maybe there’s something inside it that was used as the seed, like starting a rubber-band ball around a Superball. I wish I had a handy X-ray machine (there isn’t one in our medical collections, oh well) to do a little research, since I probably shouldn’t just start unpeeling the foil. In a thank-you note to the donor, our then-director added a postcript: “We’ve had a lovely time mystifying people with the ‘cannonball’!”  While perhaps mystifying people should not really be our goal, it can be entertaining to present the occasional “history mystery.” Not to the curator, though! Although (as this blog may make clear) I do enjoy hunting down facts and stories related to our artifacts, I prefer mysteries that can be solved with relative ease and don’t require X-ray machines or crystal balls.