Inspiring Iowans to treasure their history
(Photo Courtesy Library of Congress)
Women Supply Vermin-Proof Underwear to Soldiers
“What better investment can one make for 60 cents than for a garment which has a double purpose, that of an under garment and one that is vermin proof?” the question was posed by a Des Moines clubwoman in August 1918. Women’s clubs throughout the state were holding drives to supply Iowa soldiers with special vermin-proof underwear during World War I.
The “cootie garment movement” was the brainchild of Charlotte Eastman of Iowa City. The widow of a university Latin professor, Eastman had made it her mission to coordinate the distribution of specially treated underwear to the state’s fighting men. A laboratory at the state university in Iowa City was responsible for treating the fabric with special chemicals that resisted vermin.
Lice were a constant problem and caused “hours of torture” for soldiers, especially those serving in the trenches in Europe. This new vermin-proof treatment of fabric meant welcome relief for the soldiers. The Leon Reporter newspaper called the process a “god-send” and claimed it would protect the soldiers from the “most disagreeable feature encountered in trench life.”
Initially the Red Cross was not involved in the movement. Critics questioned why this well-respected agency didn’t use the method for garments they distributed to soldiers. So the agency sent an investigator to France to report on just how effective the chemically treated garments were on the battlefield. After several weeks in the trenches, the investigator issued a report endorsing the use of the chemical treatment.
Charlotte Eastman said she purchased a special fabric from “the south” and had it sent to the Iowa City laboratory for treatment in the chemical solution. And the chemicals were said to have no adverse effects on the fabric. Eastman said the total cost for each garment was 60 cents. By June several shipments had gone to Europe.
U.S. Army General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe, took an interest in Eastman’s cause. By July the U.S. war department had ordered 25,000 pair of specially treated underwear.
Meantime Iowa women’s clubs geared up to raise money for the cause. Eastman set up her headquarters in Des Moines to oversee the operation. The Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society, Jewish Willing War Workers, and the Mothers’ Comfort Club of Council Bluffs, among others pledged to provide money and garments for Iowa soldiers. The men of the 88th Division at Camp Dodge were recipients of the women’s work.
Women known as the Cody Workers raised funds to provide the special underwear to soldiers at Camp Cody in New Mexico. One of the women had received a letter from her husband who was a colonel at the camp. He expressed displeasure with the first shipment the men had received. The underwear were made of cheesecloth and were “unserviceable.” So the Cody Workers started using “substantial muslin” cloth, which they believed the men would more fully appreciate.
The Iowa women were honored when Charlotte Eastman received a letter from J.B. Wilson, adjutant general of the war department in Washington, D.C. He wrote on behalf of secretary of the war department. “The secretary of war directs me to express his appreciation of the patriotic action, on the part of the women of your state in the making of the vermin-proof garments.”
“Approves Iowa Plan for War on the Cootie,” Quad-City Times, Oct. 30, 1918.
“Cody Workers to Reorganize Tuesday,” Des Moines Register, Sept. 8, 1918.
“Des Moines Women in Wartime,” Des Moines Register, Aug. 9, 1918.
“Iowa to Make Soldiers Overseas ‘Cootie’ Proof,” Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Okla.) Nov. 27, 1918.
“Iowa Woman to Aid Fight on ‘Cooties,’” Ottumwa Semi -Weekly Courier, May 7, 1918.
“Johnson Leads the State in Belgian Relief,” Quad-City Times, Aug. 23, 1918.
“More Vermin-Proof Clothes Called For,” Leon Reporter, June 6, 1918.
“2,000 Yards of Cloth for Cootie Suits,” Des Moines Tribune, July 11, 1918.
“Want Women to Make Anti-Vermin Suits,” Des Moines Tribune, July 5, 1918.
Archived Iowa History Columns