For nearly 90 years, the red poppy has been worn around the world to commemorate soldiers killed in the service of their nation. The tradition began in the United States in 1918, shortly before the end of World War I, and was quickly adopted by other countries. Usually made of silk, the Veterans of Foreign Wars became the first veterans’ organization to sell the mementos nationally. In 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League also sold poppies to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium.
That the red of the poppy represents blood (the bloodshed of battle) is a common misconception. These paper-thin wild flowers were the first plants (the first signs of life) to appear on the battle-blasted soil of soldiers’ graves in Europe. In 1915, a Canadian doctor named John McCrae was inspired to write one of the most famous wartime poems: the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row….
On November 9, 1918, two days before the Armistice was signed, U.S. professor and humanitarian Moina Michael was leafing through a copy of the Ladies Home Journal and spotted McCrae’s poem. She was in New York City, working in the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters during its annual conference, and was so moved by the poem that she spent a $10 payment she had received for distinguished service to buy some poppies. She wore one and sold the others to raise money for ex-servicemen. French YMCA Secretary Madame Guerin, Michael’s colleague, took the idea up to sell poppies to aid war orphans.
A tradition was born that, despite various set-backs and modifications, continues to be observed around the world: honoring the valorous victims of war’s insanity with this tiniest, most fragile of flowers.