When looking for images of winter warmth and light for a recent Flickr album, I went off on a searching tangent and happened upon a group of photographs that piqued my interest. All the photos, from the Harris & Ewing Collection, date from 1917 (though contemporary newspaper coverage dates the event in the photos to 1918) and share the same title: “Red Cross Demonstration with Tableaux, on south front of Treasury.”
As soon as I looked closely at the photos I got very excited. I work with the Library’s poster collection and realized that the images depicted recreations with live models of Red Cross World War I posters! Also known as tableaux vivants, these recreations were a popular form of entertainment in the early 20th century. At the Red Cross event, on the south front of the U.S. Treasury building in Washington D.C., the curtains were pulled back to reveal silent/still models posed as posters that many in the audience were likely familiar with.
Let’s compare the posters to the tableaux:
“The Greatest Mother in the World” may be one of the most famous Red Cross posters from World War I. It was created by A.E. Foringer and shows a larger-than-life Red Cross nurse cradling a wounded soldier.
The living models did an excellent job replicating Edwin Blashfield’s poster for the 1917 Red Cross Christmas Roll Call drive. There was great attention to detail in this tableaux: compare the holly branches and the details on the scabbard. The women’s raised arms closely mimic the poses struck in the poster.
The child wearing short pants, sitting on the window ledge in the tribute to Jesse Willcox Smith’s “Have you a Red Cross Service Flag?” poster, is quite the trooper. According to the December 19th, 1918 edition of the Washington Evening Star newspaper, the Red Cross tableaux vivants were performed twice daily for three days in December of that year. National Weather Service data states that the average temperature for Washington D.C. in December of 1918 was 27.9 degrees. That is chilly for short pants.
The demonstration was a part of the Red Cross Christmas Roll Call campaign, which sought to increase membership and solicit donations. Another Harris & Ewing photo from the event shows a band playing while a crowd listens.