The Poppy Lady ~ Another Significant Piece of Military History

11.13.2022 [archived ~ 5.21.2015]

Commemorative stamp issued by the United States Post office in 1948, four years after the death of Moina Bell Michael, the founder of the Memorial Poppy

“Girls selling poppies on the streets Monday for a benefit fund for disabled soldiers of the late war found their biggest job was to keep up their supply.  The red flowers sold rapidly and before the day was over the man who did not wear one was a rarity.” [Itasca News 6-3-1922]

Although 1922 was the first year that the red poppies were sold as a national effort to raise money to aid our disabled soldiers, the endeavor actually started two days before Armistice Day in 1918, by Miss Moina Bell Michael.  She purchased and distributed several dozen silk poppies to men during the annual Conference of the Overseas Y.M.C.A. War Secretaries in New York, New York.

Miss Michael had been inspired by the poem written by Colonel John McCrae about the soldiers in the Great War, in May 1915.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Miss Michael was born shortly after the Civil war.  She began a lengthy teaching career which started in a rural school when she was only fifteen!  At the time the United States entered the war in Europe in 1917 she was a professor at the University of Georgia.  Determined to do more than just knit and roll bandages, she applied to join the only line of service that she could at the age of forty-seven, War Work with the Y.M.C.A. and when accepted at the training headquarters in New York, she took a leave of absence from the university. 

In her autobiography, The Miracle Flower Michael explained that on Saturday, November 9, 1918, a soldier brought her the latest issue of the “Ladie’s Home Journal” and showed her the page on which Colonel John McCrae’s poem, ‘We Shall Not Sleep’ (later named ‘In Flanders Fields’) was written. She had read it before, but the accompanying illustration made the words of the verse more real, especially the last line.

Miss Michael wrote, “…I pledged to KEEP THE FAITH and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died.” On a used envelope “…I hastily scribbled my pledge” Her pledge was actually a poem written in reply to Colonel McCrae’s and was entitled, We Shall Keep the Faith’. 

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

That same day, with ten dollars Miss Michael received from those attending the 25th Conference of the Overseas Y.M.C.A. War Secretaries, she purchased several dozen silk poppies and pinned them to the lapels of all the men present. “…I have always considered that I, then and there, consummated the first sale of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy.”

When the war was over Miss Michael returned to the university and taught a class of disabled servicemen. Realizing the need to provide financial and occupational support for these men, she pursued the idea of selling silk poppies as a means of raising funds to assist disabled veterans. In 1921, her efforts resulted in the poppy being adopted as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans by the American Legion Auxiliary.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) conducted its initial poppy campaign in May 1922, becoming the first veterans’ organization to facilitate a nationwide distribution. The poppy soon was adopted as the official memorial flower of the VFW of the United States and by 1924 the Buddy Poppy was a registered name and trademark with the United States Patent Office.

The Deer River community has proudly supported the poppy sales since that very first year. In 1924, Mayor Frank Sanger (also druggist in Deer River) designated Thursday, May 29th as Poppy Day at the request of the Ladies Auxiliary. 

The American Legion makes but an annual appeal to the public for financial contribution.  It is not a selfish request.  This year it is a campaign on behalf of those who cannot ask for aid and would not if they could – the orphans of war.  These unhappy but uncomplaining victims are inarticulate.  The public engaged in its own busy affairs is inclined to forget its debt to them.  The American Legion has pledged itself to make the nation remember that these fatherless children represent the cost of war; a debt of every individual American that can never be paid in full.

“It is appropriate that this campaign should take place during the week proceeding Memorial Day.  The poppy should be as much a memorable reminder of the public obligation to these orphans as the red kettles of the Salvation Army at Christmas time.” [Itasca News 5-15-1924]

Known as the “Poppy Lady” for her humanitarian efforts, Miss Michael received numerous awards during her lifetime. In 1948, four years after her death, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her life’s achievement. In 1969, the Georgia General Assembly named a section of U.S. Highway 78 the Moina Michael Highway.

1 Comment

  1. Vickie says:

    I still buy the red poppies. I’ve been doing it for years.


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