Though the US did not officially enter World War II until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, America and many of its citizens contributed to the war effort nonetheless. Bundles for Britain, established by Natalie Latham, was one of those contributions.
American Aid to Britain
Congress passed the Neutrality Act in November of 1939, in effect telling the world that the US would not take part in a war that, in the minds of many Americans, was confined to Europe. But in March, 1941, the Lend-Lease Act was signed into law, officially allowing the US to send war materials to Allied nations.
Even before the Lend-Lease Act was passed, however, the US began sending supplies to Britain. And US ships were used to transport British children, sent away from their homes amidst fears of German invasion, to America, where many of them were placed in American foster families.
Bundles for Britain is Born
But America, thought Natalie Latham, as reported in a 1941 LIFE magazine article, was not doing nearly enough to help its friends across the Atlantic. A New York socialite and twice-divorced mother of two little girls, Mimi and Bubbles, Latham was growing increasingly aware of Britain's plight, as 1941 got off to a cold start.
According to Lorraine B. Diehl in her book Over Here! New York City During World War II, Latham borrowed, rent-free, a vacant Park Avenue store, purchased a box of wool yarn, posted on the store window a sketch of a sailor, and spent all that first day with a few of her high-society friends knitting gloves, socks, and sweaters for the British servicemen on the North Sea.
By the end of that night, the store was packed with passersby who wanted to lend a hand.
Latham was not a moment too soon. Nationwide rationing began in England on January 8, 1940. Six days later, Bundles for Britain was launched.
Bundles for Britain Expands
The humble store-front charity was booming. Women all across New York City began stopping into the Park Avenue store, spending a free hour putting any basic stitching skills to good use.
According to the LIFE article, by May of the following year Bundles for Britain had grown to 975 branches throughout the US and had raised about $3,000,000. Exchanging its Park Avenue store for an office suite on Fifth Avenue, Bundles had to use an additional building on 89th Street for packing and shipping the products that the volunteers made and collected.
Now, the "bundles" were more than just homemade gloves and socks. The organization had begun collecting all kinds of equipment that could be of use to Britain. Latham took up a correspondence with Mrs. Winston Churchill to make sure that the items to be shipped would fill the most serious needs. If any donations were received that could not be used, they were sold, and different items were purchased with the proceeds.
The LIFE article reports that, by May of 1941, Bundles for Britain had sent "500,000 used garments, 6,000 air-raid shelter cots, 60,000 pairs of shoes, 50,000 sweaters, 50,000 pairs of socks, 24 ambulances, 59 mobile canteens, 21 X-ray machines, and thousands of miscellaneous items of clothing, knitted goods, and medical equipment" across the Atlantic.
Throughout the months of the Blitzkrieg, which began in September of 1940, Bundles adopted nineteen London hospitals that had suffered from the bombings, sending them funds to help with the cost of repairs.
Barkers for Britain
Even man's best friend contributed to Bundles. Barkers for Britain was a highly successful campaign that raised funds by selling memberships to dog owners for their pets. Barkers chapters were established across the country, and, once his or her owner paid $0.50, each new member dog received a special tag to wear.
The president, and recipient of the first Barkers tag, was none other than Fala, President Roosevelt's Scottish terrier. He was even called upon to stamp his paw print on membership certificates.
Between April and October of 1941, almost 30,000 tags were distributed within the US. Another 1,000 were sent to Barkers chapters in Australia.
Bundles for Britain: The Movie
Natalie Latham and Bundles for Britain became the inspiration for a 1943 film produced by RKO Radio Pictures. Mr. Lucky, starring Cary Grant and Laraine Day, is the story of a gambler who tries to cheat a war relief organization out of some money. His plot, however, is foiled when he falls in love with one of the organization's workers, a society woman much like Latham.
Bundles for Britain: World War 2 Relief
Natalie Latham, who started Bundles for Britain with only an idea, a small shop, and a box of yarn, ended up making a huge impact on the war relief effort. As one London reporter noted in a news clip of blitz victims trying on clothes from a Bundles for Britain box, "hundreds of war-impoverished people are grateful to kind-hearted Americans for their help."
Diehl, Lorraine B. Over Here! New York City During World War II. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.