History · The Magazine Rack

Ivy for Gold Star Mothers: a WWI Memorial

WWI photo of five service men clustered around an upright piano. The pianist plays a popular war tune while the there sing. One stands back, leaning on the piano, smiling.
Armistice Day: Remembering the boys who didn’t come home.

In the July 1920 issue of Woman’s Home Companion, a curious editorial snippet offered ivy to Gold Star mothers. The little article was so unusual that it caught my eye. Gold Star mothers lost their sons during World War I. The gold star established that this mother’s son enlisted, and this mother’s son died. The editorial said:

“Shortly after the declaration of the Armistice, in November, 1918, an American woman went over the Argonne battlefield with her husband. The sky was serene and the cannon had ceased to roar; but over and under and through everything was the ruin of war––the shattered, blasted trees, shallow ditches where men had taken hasty refuge, pits made by bursting shells, and mounds that still sheltered the dead where they had fallen.

The ivy

“But along with the gray desolation there was the hushed beauty and serenity of the ‘big timber’ forest itself. On the very top of one of the great hills the woman found some ivy growing. The broken branches of the trees around it were shriveled with the gases from the shells and blackened with fire; but the ivy was growing out again, a sign and symbol of life pushing forth anew in the midst of death.

He seemed so young to me, not yet nineteen, killed in action October, 1918.

a bereaved mother

“The woman dug up the ivy and carried it in a paper package on the five days’ motor trip back. In Paris, the French gardener at her friend’s house revived it. When it was time to sail for America, the ivy was at least alive. In her stateroom, homeward bound, she placed it near the air, and it suddenly began to grow. It has continued to grow ever since.

“Now there are hundreds of little ivy plants from that one shoot, and more are coming all the time.

The offer

“Any American mother whose son was lost in the war, and who would like to have one of these plants as a sign of green remembrance––and as a token from another American mother whose own sons are far too young to have been in the great war––is asked to write to Mrs. Frank Vanderlip, Scarborough-on-Hudson, New York. In writing, please give the boy’s name, regiment and number, and the mothers’ full name and address.”

The response

As I read the short editorial I felt my eyes burn with tears. And I wondered… what was the response? Did anyone take this lady’s offer and send for a plant?

Well, reading on, it seems that they did. The October 1920 editorial page contained an update on the ivy and the mothers who requested it. I’ll reproduce this part in full as well, because I think it brings us back to the real meaning of Armistice Day, and what it cost. It reads:

“Up to August 1st more than 400 mothers had asked fo these little plants, and been supplied. There were letters from every state in the Union.

With the hope that it will climb up to the window of the little room where my baby slept so few years ago. He was seventeen when he enlisted.

A bereaved mother

“A reading of these letters has been a most touching experience, and has brought a realization of the consequences of war which the dispatches from the front never did. Just what to call the little ivies seemed often puzzling, and the request might be for a spring, plant, cutting, slip, bud, seed, sprout, start, root, or shoot. But what matter? It was to ‘Plant on my dear boy’s grave’ or ‘With the hope that it will climb up to the window of the little room where my baby slept so few years ago. He was seventeen when he enlisted.’

They were so young

“Perhaps there is no thing in the letters more noticeable than the youth of those who have gone. ‘My boy was eighteen,’ the mother writes, or ‘twenty,’ or ‘twenty-two.’ There can be no quarrel with the use of the word boy. There is another term often used which tells this even more simply: my child. ‘He was our only child.’ ‘He seemed so young to me, not yet nineteen, killed in action October, 1918.’ And the brave attempt, old as sorrow itself –– which is the oldest thing in the world –– somehow to connect everything with the one one who is gone. ‘I think this piece, perhaps, may have come from the vine my boy may have seen there in the Argonne the morning he was killed.’

“The young ivy plants seemed to be good travelers. ‘It was hardly wilted’ came from as far away as Mississippi. ‘The sprout seems to be doing fine,’ writes another. And this, breathing enthusiasm and true optimism: ‘It is growing nicely. Had another leaf before a week.’ ‘I’m sure it will respond to affection. Flowers and plants know the touch of love quite as well as humans.’

“A pleasant thought cropping out in many letters is expressed by one mother when she says, ‘And when the ivy grows I will give slips to other Gold Star mothers, the same as you have done.’ In the meantime, Mrs. Vanderlip, whose ‘thoughtfulness, sweetness, and kindness’ is mentioned in almost every letter, has more baby ivy plants and she will gladly send them to those mothers who ask.”

Passing it on

Hopefully, those plants did thrive. And maybe some of the ivy for Gold Star mothers survived well enough to send cuttings to other Gold Star mothers, who treasured their little memory of green from France. Today many wear red poppies on Armistice Day to never forget. Hopefully the healthy green ivy helped these families to remember those lives cut so short by war.

Something a bit different

If the 1916-1920 time period intrigues you, you might enjoy Cinderella’s Confession. This dates from the same time period, and is an advertisement from 1919 changed the course of advertising history.