The people of New Hampshire have had their own vocabulary from the get-go. From drinking at a ‘bubbler,’ to catching ‘hornpout,’ there is often at least one word that sticks out in conversation as strange to out-of-staters. During World War I while most of the country created “soldier’s kits,” the women’s groups of New Hampshire made “comfort kits.”
In my research on the soldiers and nurses of this war, I came across these terms fairly often: soldier’s kit or soldier’s kit sack. But only in a few places, besides New Hampshire did I see the same package regularly called “comfort kits.” (Newcastle PA, Hagerstown MD, Yuma AZ, and several places in IN are a few of the other exceptions).
In New Hampshire, for example, Hampton Red Cross work in November 1917 resulted in “30 sweaters, 37 pairs service socks, 23 pairs wristers [knitted warm coverings for the wrists], 11 helmets, 27 mufflers [face scarves against dust or cold], 72 pairs pajamas, 63 comfort kits and 8600 surgical dressings. There are now five afternoons a week devoted to war relief work.” [Portsmouth Herald, 1 Dec 1917].
In Nashua, New Hampshire, men from the first quota of the second draft from that city, leaving for Fort Devens, were presented with a sweater, socks, and a comfort kit by the Nashua chapter of the American Red Cross. [Nashua Telegraph, March 29, 1918].
-Detail of a WWI Soldier’s Equipment-
In order to understand what comfort kits were, you have to first know how the World War I soldier was equipped and outfitted. Government issue–what he would have to lug around with him on a regular basis–weighed about 33+ pounds. This is about the weight of a traditional leather western saddle (or a 30-month old baby boy). Trust me, if you are not a pack horse, you aren’t going to handle this weight well for any length of time.
The Evening Journal newspaper, Wilmington Delaware of 3 July 1917 explains well what the average doughboy carried around with him. “The slang term ‘soldiering’ loses its meaning when the U.S. troops go to war, for they not only have long marches in all sorts of weather, but they must carry equipment weighing 33 pounds, which seems three times that heavy at the end of a long hike.”
“The complete soldier’s kit shown above includes the knapsack, bayonet and cartridge belt, the blanket roll, including a half a shelter tent, a blanket and a poncho, his canteen, rifle, five tent pegs and an upright in three sections, mess utensils, and a first aid package. In addition, the soldier may carry articles for his own personal comfort, such as a shaving kit and toilet articles.” [Here are some great photographs of the individual articles of clothing and equipment]
It is this last sentence that I would like you to pay attention to. The ‘additional articles that the soldier may carry‘ that makes his 33 pound pack even heavier. And thus you understand the need to make the kit compact and light-weight.
-Comfort Kit Contents-
No two kits were identical. What composed the kit depended on the maker, and how much time and money were at their disposal. Many of the kits were put together by women’s groups, Red Cross Circles, Women’s Clubs, Sewing Clubs, and Auxiliary groups. A kit could be as simple as a bag with sewing articles, or as extensive as others described here later. Fairly soon after the war started merchants began to offer a variety of these kits, from empty khaki colored ones to sturdy leather kits containing personal items. Vendors of shaving goods, tobacco in many forms, cameras, and writing instruments each touted their product as essential to include. After Armistice Days I saw advertisements of “half-off” sales, as the merchants realized the need would be less.
-My Favorite Comfort Kit-
I would have to say my favorite of those I read about is the following printed instructions on how to make a Soldier’s Kit from scratch. “A soldier’s kit designed by seven Topeka women and approved by Col. R. Neill Rahn as the best pattern presented at the Kansas National Guard headquarters because of its compactness, can be made by any person. The kit, including the clever housewife, requires 24 inches of khaki cloth, 27 inches wide.
Cut 12 inches from one end for the housewife, which is 12 inches long and 5 inches wide. Fold 1/4 inch for turn all around strip. Fold one end over 2-1/2 inches to form a pocket. Fold the other end over 1-1/2 inches for pocket. Insert a 2-1/2 inch strip over middle of main strip to form center pocket, first sewing buttons to the strip. Safety pins can be fastened to large pocket. Cut two pieces of cardboard to fit large end pocket. Place cardboard together and wrap with linen thread and white thread No. 24. Pins may be stuck in one end and a darning needle and two smaller needs in the other. Into this pocket can be placed court plaster, adhesive plaster, photographs, letters, etc. The stiff cardboard forms a solid back for the housewife. The soldiers can take the entire kit, weighing only 1-1/4 pound in their army blankets. The housewife, if necessary, can be removed and taken into the firing line.”
“Articles that can be fitted into the kit are mirror (one that can hang up), housewife, comb, box of talcum, cold cream, tooth-paste, safety razor, pencil, wash rag and soap bag, shaving brush, mentholatum, adhesive tape, shaving stick, tooth brush and scissors. Three safety-pins in the top of the bag will make it possible for the bag to be pinned to the tent. Tapes are sewed to the bag to tie it securely. The women who designed the bag were Mrs. R.B. Swingley, Miss Ada Snyder, Miss Hazel Mull, Mrs. George Helm, Mrs. Roy E. Cope, Mrs. E.V. Lineberry, and Mrs. William Sherman.”
-What the WWI Soldiers Wanted and Needed-
But after all this, what did the “boys” at the front really need and want? This next newspaper article answers the question somewhat, and it entirely explains what a boost World War I was to the tobacco industry and the habit of smoking.
The Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat newspaper of Keokuk, Iowa, on 7 July 1917, page 4 printed the following story. SOME THINGS TO SEND SOLDIERS.
“Kits for Boys at the Front Should Have Useful Articles–Suggestions for Gifts to the Sammies in Field. What to send to the soldier lad when he goes to the front, will be the question many will have to settle for themselves ere long and a hint as to what is most desirable will not be amiss. Recently one hundred English soldier boys, who are at the French front were asked the questions: “What is the thing you most like from home?”
“Twenty-seven answered ‘woolen socks,’ to keep the feet warm in the trenches (doing duty in the trenches is like living in a cellar). Fourteen asked for tooth powder. Nineteen answered they would like razors. Thirty-seven asked for tobacco in some form or other. Of the ninety-seven who answered the query, forty-three, without being asked to do so, gave a second choice and in thirty-nine of the forty-three times this second choice was tobacco. An English officer connected with the censor’s department said recently: “Jam at the holidays, harmonicas or mouth organs, razors, and socks seem to be the thing that the boys write home for mostly.”
“All of which is printed for the guidance of American women in making up comfort kits for American soldier boys. Uncle Sam’s boys are not mollycoddles. What they want is a common sense layout of useful accessories. Camp life or actual war is not a holiday picnic or a week-end party: it is work, hard work. The men are exposed to all kinds of weather; they sometimes sleep under comfortable conditions and sometimes the reverse is true. The heaviest, most substantial things are most necessary to their comfort than dainties. In selecting articles for the needs of soldiers, much care should be taken to get the things that will do the men the most good and serve the conditions to which the men are exposed. A rough bath towel, for instance, is more acceptable than a linen one. Heavy cotton underwear is better than silk. These things should be apparent to most of the peop0le at home who are sending their boys things for war wear.”
“In sending them a kit, don’t fail to include a good safety razor and a package of blades. It is easier to work with an instrument of this kind than an old fashioned straight razor which will quickly get dull. Remember there are very few means of sharpening razors in a battlefield camp. An officer of the national guard pronounces the following an ideal list: Rough towel and wash cloth, comb, hand-scrub, tooth paste, tooth brush, tan shoe polish, two pairs of tan shoes, two or three strong handkerchiefs, cake of soap in celluloid case, cake of shaving soap, razor and blades, card of safety pins, package of needles with big eyes, card of bachelor khaki-colored buttons, card of pearl buttons for underwear, spool of white thread No. 40, spool of khaki-colored thread, No. 30, box of chewing gum, box of candy (hard candy which not get stuck in warm weather), one pipe, bag or box of tobacco, package of cigaret [sic cigarette] papers, book, box of paper, envelopes, pad and pencils.”
-Unconventional Comfort Kit Additions-
In addition to all that I have spoken about, I would be remiss if I did not mention several non-standard items of a comfort or soldier’s kit. Some of the following were designed based on the specific needs of the wartime military.
1) knife for soldiers kits which can be taken apart and used as a knife and fork.
2) military trench mirror, made from polished metal instead of mirror glass.
3) pocket camera (Kodak).
4) khaki-covered bible.
5) safety razor and disposable blades
6) spray analgesic (pain-killer called Nikalgen)
7) sun glasses
8) iodine swabs (antiseptic)
9) safety-sealed cartridge fountain pen with ink tablets
These comfort kits were given out at various times–at a soldier’s point of departure for training camp, on holidays, as a gift from their family or friends, or as an ‘extra’ from various women’s group to replace one lost. The soldiers often wrote home, grateful for these packages which allowed them to attain at least basic personal hygiene.