Sea Foam: The history of memorial poppy sales

features@islandpacket.comJune 4, 2012 

Thanks to Dorothy D. Shea of Hilton Head Island for explaining the story behind the American Legion Auxiliary's National Poppy Drive.

Dorothy, who is president of the American Legion Post 185 Auxiliary, writes:

"Our veterans, who are confined to hospitals, are the ones who fashion the paper poppies, and the American Legion Auxiliary sells them to all the local auxiliaries for 11 cents apiece.

"The auxiliaries then offer them to the public where possible and accept donations for them. We do not sell the poppies.

"The donations received are then used to provide veterans' needs that are not covered by government funding, and these funds cannot be used for any other purpose.

"In the past 16 years, during Memorial Day weekend, we have conducted this drive at various places on the island where our drive is allowed, and these donations have been applied to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston; 'Phone Home' telephone cards for military far from home during the holiday season; guide dogs for veterans; and the Wounded Warriors Independence Fund.

"We constantly seek any new areas that are needed and not provided for by our government where our funds can be of help to those who served us well."

Dorothy also shared the following full history from the American Legion Auxiliary National Headquarters:


The poppy as the memorial flower for American war dead is a tradition that began in the years following the first World War. Veterans returning to their homes in this country remembered the wild poppies that lined the devastated battlefields of France and Flanders, and the soldiers of all nations came to look upon this flower as a living symbol of their dead comrades' sacrifice. A Canadian officer, Col. John McCrae, immortalized the flower in his famous poem, "In Flanders' Fields."

Returning servicemen brought with them memories of the battlefield poppies, and the flower soon took on a sacred significance. The poppy soon became a symbol of honoring the dead and assisting the living victims of war.

Soon after the armistice, patriotic organizations in different countries began conducting poppy sales. The flowers, made by disabled servicemen, raised funds for relief work among handicapped veterans and their families. Wearing a poppy came to mean "honor the dead and help the living."

The homecoming of the 32nd Division in Milwaukee in June 1919 marked the beginning of the auxiliary's poppy program. A doughnut booth decorated with paper poppies was stripped of its floral ornaments twice and the passerby who took the poppies left contributions on the counter. Several hundred dollars were raised for veterans.

One of the women in the booth, Mary Hanecy, proposed that distributing poppies on the streets at the time of Memorial Day would be an excellent way for American Legion posts to raise money needed for rehabilitation work. She presented her idea to Post No. 1 in Milwaukee and, as a result, this group conducted a poppy distribution on the Saturday before Memorial Day 1920.

The American Legion National adopted the poppy in September 1920 as the national memorial flower of the organization. At the first national convention of the American Legion Auxiliary in Kansas City, Mo., in October 1921, one of its first actions was the adoption of the poppy as the auxiliary's memorial flower.

At the first national convention of the American Legion Auxiliary in Kansas City, Mo., in October 1921, one of its first actions was the adoption of the poppy as the auxiliary's memorial flower. By 1924, it was realized the Poppy Program would be best handled by women and the American Legion gave the auxiliary complete charge of the program.

Approximately 25 million Americans wear our poppies in tribute to the war dead, contributing nearly $2 million for the rehabilitation and well-being of disabled veterans.

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