Dec 13

Good Cheer Bag

Thursday, December 13, 2018 9:01 AM

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Lieutenant Commander Theodorus Bailey Myers Mason, best known as the founder of the Office of Naval Intelligence, no doubt led a fascinating life. He was born in 1848 to a prominent 5th Avenue family in New York City, where much of his childhood was spent riding a small white pony daily. He decided by the age of 16 he would join the Navy and impressed his father by saving the money for a commission himself. He called on the Secretary of the Navy at 16 to ask him personally to secure a commission. The plan worked, and he entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1864 in its wartime location at Newport, Rhode Island. He distinguished himself early by saving the lives of two Brazilian sailors at his first duty station. He was gifted in languages; growing up, he learned French from his nurse and German from his family’s butler, and as a young naval officer, he learned Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean during assignments. Mason was a favored instructor at the Naval Academy in both gunnery and French, known just as much for his handsome vigor and personable manner as for his intellect, which was evident from his articles in Proceedings. Though he fell out of favor with more than one Presidential administrations, he served much of his career in Washington, D.C., where his father bought him an elegant house at 1606 20th Street.

Lt Commander Theodorus Bailey Myers Mason (U.S. Navy)

Lieutenant Commander Theodorus Bailey Myers Mason (U.S. Navy)

However, the spirit of service his life inspired did not stop with his death in 1899. Cassie Mason Myers Julian-James, Theodorus’ sister, carried on the family tradition. She led a fascinating life of her own. Julian-James traveled extensively in Europe and the West Indies, where she met her husband as both traveled in Cuba. Sadly, only a year into their marriage, he died from lingering complications of an illness contracted during his service in the Civil War. Cassie took over her brother’s stately home and devoted herself and the space to the women’s section of the Navy League. During World War I, the Theodorus Bailey Myers Mason House hosted classes on first aid, surgical dressings, knitting and sewing. There were also classes for young ladies on skills of a more military nature: military calisthenics and drill, telegraphy, and “semaphore and wigwagging.” The Theodorus Bailey Myers Mason House was open to all young ladies over 16 years of age interested in war work, with scholarships available.

Good Cheer Bag (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Good Cheer Bag (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

In 1917 and 1918, the group fundraised and collected items for 45,000 “Good Cheer Bags,” what might be call a care package today, for soldiers and sailors overseas. One such bag is preserved at the National Museum of American History. Each blue sateen bag had a combination of necessities and everyday luxuries. The safety razor was a new technology in World War I but proliferated rapidly when the luxury of getting a close shave in the field meant that a gas mask could seal properly. The “ribbon dental cream” skipped the step of needing to mix water into the dental powder common at the time. A metal trench mirror and “housewife” sewing kit were purely functional, but the joke book, song book, and set of dominos could help alleviate boredom. The pouch tobacco and corn cob pipe are hard to recognize, but the Wrigley’s gum looks almost the same as today.

A small card that reads “From War Brothers Unit,” gives additional insight to the community support sailors were receiving. War Brothers were male members of the Navy League who agreed to take on “giving responsible advice and friendship” to one sailor and write him at least once a month and perhaps “send him some tobacco.” The War Brothers also worked with the War Mothers, a group of Navy mothers who banded together to providing recreation to sailors and comfort bereaved families.

One last set of items demonstrates that even at war, our young men and women in uniform wanted to be able to give back. A set of blank Christmas and New Year’s postcards were not for Christmas messages for the sailors—they were a chance to send something nice back home.

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