American Red Cross Founding and History

Published March 31, 2020
 American Red Cross

The American Red Cross has helped many people throughout the world navigate and recover from extraordinarily difficult situations. The organization provides disaster relief, assists victims of war and other conflicts, helps to support and connect military families, and more. The impact of the work of the American Red Cross has been felt since its 19th century founding and is likely to continue well into the future.

American Red Cross Founding and Early Days

The American Red Cross was founded in May 1881 by Clara Barton. Several life events led to her decision to start the American Red Cross, beginning with her selfless commitment to providing aid to troops fighting in the United States civil war. Barton served as president of the American Red Cross until 1904. She was 83 years old when she stepped down from this role.

  • U.S. Civil War aid - In the early days of the civil war Barton started out by collecting medical supplies to support the troops, but shifted her focus to providing direct assistance to them in the battlefield. Soldiers came to refer to her as "Angel of the Battlefield."
  • Overseas aid work - After the civil war ended, she traveled to Europe. There, she became aware of Red Cross, a Swiss organization committed to securing protection for those who are wounded or become ill during times of war and to forming national non-partisan associations that would offer aid on a voluntary basis.
  • Bringing Red Cross stateside - Upon her return from abroad, campaigned to encourage the U.S. to ratify the Geneva Convention. She also Barton worked to fulfill her goal of adding the American Red Cross to the global network of Red Cross organizations.
  • Federal charter: The American Red Cross received its first congressional charter in 1900. While the organization is not a federal agency, this charter requires the organization to fulfill certain services delegated by the federal government. Examples include disaster relief, fulfilling Geneva Convention provisions to provide protection to people who have been victimized by conflict, and to support members of the military and their families.

American Red Cross Historical Timeline

The history of the American Red Cross is a long one, marked by many milestones.

  • 1863 - Formation of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded (the precursor of the International Committee of the Red Cross) in Switzerland
  • 1881 - American Red Cross founding
  • 1900 - American Red Cross receives its initial congressional charter
  • 1904 - Clara Burton resigns from her role as American Red Cross president
  • 1907 - Starts selling Christmas Seals to raise money for the National Tuberculosis Association
  • 1912 - Clara Burton passes away.
  • 1914 - Sends the SS Red Cross to Europe as World War I breaks out
  • 1917 - Exponential growth of American Red Cross begins after U.S. officially enters World War I
  • 1918 - Establishes Volunteer Nurses' Aide Service
  • 1918 - Membership passed 31 million
  • 1919 - Founding of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) and Red Crescent Societies
  • 1930s - Provides disaster relief related to the Great Depression and severe drought
  • 1941 - Establishes blood supply program for armed services
  • 1945 - Provides assistance to World War II military personnel via 39,000 paid staff and 7.5 million volunteers
  • 1947 - Launches first nationwide civilian blood donation program
  • 1948 - First regional blood donor center opens in Rochester, New York
  • 1950 - Begins serving as blood collection service for U.S. armed forces during the Korean conflict
  • 1967 - Launches National Rare Blood Donor Registry
  • 1972 - Issues a call for a national blood policy
  • 1985 - Begins testing all blood donations for HIV
  • 1990 - Establishes Holocaust Victims Tracing Center
  • 1990s - Modernizes operation of blood services for improved safety
  • 2005 - Mobilizes its largest disaster relief effort (to that point) in the wake of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma
  • 2006 - Began working with FEMA to assist community and government entities with disaster planning
  • 2006 - Celebrates 125 years of service
  • 2007 - Receives most recent congressional charter
  • 2012 - Launches first smartphone app focused on emergency first aid instructions
  • 2013 - Releases a smartphone app on tornado safety

This list features a selection of milestones and facts about the history of the American Red Cross, but there are many other significant dates and accomplishments in the organization's history, including on-the-ground assistance in times of war and following countless natural disasters. If you'd like to further explore their history and see key artifacts for yourself, consider scheduling a tour at their Washington, DC headquarters.

Present-Day American Red Cross

The American Red Cross continues to meet its mission through a wide variety of services. While the group's blood donor program and highly publicized disaster relief efforts may be among the organization's most visible current programs, they are certainly not the only ones. For example, the modern American Red Cross also offers extensive healthy and safety educational programs, including include topics like HIV/AIDS, CPR/AED, babysitting, lifeguard certification, and many other services. The group's contributions continue to have a widespread positive impact on public health and safety.

American Red Cross Founding and History