In these days of relative prosperity – and despite whatever the stock market does today, we still live in relative prosperity – where our chapels and ward budgets are provided with little effort on the local level, it can be inspiring to remember the creativity and devotion of earlier generations who raised funds for charitable work through almost constant efforts. Florence R. Vincent of the South London Branch reported to the Millennial Star some of the activities her Relief Society engaged in during the late 1920s.
Their small branch needed the funds, too. Besides the occasional needs of young mothers and the sick, the branch was caring for eight members who were too elderly to attend meetings any longer, and they had two members who were hospitalized for long periods.
As did Relief Societies in the U.S., the London sisters made quilts for use by needy members and for sale to raise funds. Material for some of the quilts came from knitted clothing donated by sisters. The Relief Society dyed the clothing to suit their designs, then unraveled the items to make what Sister Vincent called “woolly quilts” – I do not know whether that means they re-knit the yarn into quilt covers, or whether the yarn was recrafted in some other way.
Some of their quilts were made from silk (not nylon) stockings that were donated after runs made them unsuitable for wear – the stockings were cut open along the back seams, and quilt patches were cut from sections of the silk without runs; the silk was dyed, sewn into quilt tops, and lined with plain fabric to make them strong. Sister Vincent was proud that none of their quilts had cost the Relief Society so much as a penny – the sisters had donated all of the materials. At the time she wrote, they had enough leftover fabric on hand to make four dresses for some children in the branch who needed clothing.
The branch held socials to raise money, too. For one event, Sister Vincent made 83 paper roses which were tied to real branches to resemble a rosebush in bloom. With the help of a particularly attractive girl in the branch, the roses were sold as boutonnieres for a penny each. One of the roses had a number penciled on it in an inconspicuous place, and the lucky one who purchased that rose won a small paper model of a covered wagon and ox team, filled with candy. (The money from this project was earmarked for the care of a young brother confined in a sanitarium, who had just lost his mother and now had no living relatives.)
This may have been the same social where the sisters sold lemonade for a penny a glass. Then someone had the bright idea to start calling it “The Spirit of St. Louis” in honor of the teetotaling Charles Lindberg, whose trans-Atlantic flight took place in 1927. The sisters made “a rare fuss” over the rechristened drink and raised the price to sixpence a glass.
Perhaps inspired by the parable of the talents, another fundraising event involved giving each participant a shilling, and asking her to find a way to increase its value during the following two weeks. Sister Vincent went to a warehouse and purchased handkerchiefs “cheaper than wholesale,” then visited shops and sold the handkerchiefs at wholesale prices. “The profit was very small, and I had to sell a good many to make much,” she reported – but she did turn a profit, which she turned into the Relief Society fund.
Then the sisters solicited suggestions for ways to improve their Relief Society meetings. The catch was that each suggestion had to be accompanied by a donated penny. Some of the sisters really got into the spirit of the fundraiser, sending in multiple – paid – suggestions. A small prize was given to the sister who submitted the idea that was first to be incorporated by the branch: “After Relief meeting, instead of talking too long, all the sisters who wish to could practise a few songs, in preparation for a little entertainment to be given at the workhouses.” The sisters planned to give Thursday and Saturday charity concerts during the coming holiday season.
In honor of Pioneer Day one year, the branch appointed three young sisters to collect funds for picnic baskets to be given to the elderly members of the branch who could not attend the branch picnic. Sister Vincent seemed especially pleased that the entire project was turned over to these young girls, to develop their talents in organization and selection, and “we were very pleased with the way the young sisters managed” to fill their baskets with cocoa, condensed milk, rice, eggs, oranges, bananas and cookies.
It was not all labor for the Relief Society sisters, though, and I love the assertive way they arranged for their own entertainment: “Sometimes when we have an open night in the Relief Society meetings, we invite all the brethren and all of our non-“Mormon” friends. We ask the brethren to give us a little surprise. They do all the entertaining for us that night, and the sisters serve refreshments.”
I remember the Relief Society bazaars that my mother and her friends used to work for months to prepare, but which were a thing of the past before I was old enough to participate (well, to do more, that is, than take my allowance to buy the wonderful homemade candy and home-sewn Barbie doll clothes, some of which – the clothes, not the candy – I still have). And I remember fundraisers to pay for a new chapel – my child’s memory suggests that they were mainly food-related, although surely there were other activities as well. These included bake sales, for which my mother made specialty breads or elaborate cut-up cakes decorated with candies and coconut and licorice whips to look like castles and lions and clowns. Mom made the baked goods, but it was Dad’s job to deliver them to the bake sale – family lore says he never came home from a delivery run without having bought back some of Mom’s bread. Then there were the dime-a-dip dinners, with all the food brought potluck-style by ward members who cheerfully paid ten cents for every spoonful of their own donations that they heaped back on their dinner plates. Do you remember others?
Today’s methods are certainly more efficient – rather than pouring labor into the making of paper roses or baked goods for fundraisers, we can pour the same energy into assembling humanitarian aid kids or painting houses or working directly with those whom the fundraisers were ultimately intended to aid. Still, the creativity and effort of sisters who managed to raise charitable funds during the days of our poverty as a church need to be remembered and honored.