France Red Cross Booklets

The Red Cross was created by Swiss businessman Henri Dunant in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1859 Dunant was near the battlefield of Solferino and was horrified by the suffering of the 40,000 troops that had been killed or wounded in that battle. There were no medical facilities whatsoever, and the wounded were left among the dead to die in torment from their wounds. Dunant left his business interests and went around the battlefield for days helping the wounded. He soon founded the Red Cross. During the American Civil War, soldier suffering was also intense, and Americans became interested in the idea of relieving suffering. One of the questions that I always like to ask when any new idea or program develops is why they develop when they do. Surely wars were brutal before 1859, and wounded soldiers have died in terror and pain since the dawn of history. Why did it take to around 1860 for pity to become a strong enough motivator for people to begin to do something about suffering?

There are two main reasons for this, I think. First, the development of technology, especially in this period—the railroads meant that outsiders could come in and see the disasters that wars produced. In the US, the development of newspapers that specialized in national news sent reporters to battlefields, and people became sensitized to suffering because they could see and hear it in ways that made it hard to avoid wanting to do something about it. Further, technology and railroads made it possible for the first time to actually do something about this. Doctors and nurses and food and supplies could be moved into battlefields in time to actually save some lives rather than just bury corpses.

Perhaps equally important is a subtle change in human psychology that has been ongoing and finally reached a critical mass in the last couple hundred years—the development of the emotion of pity. In a great lecture given at Cornell in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov traced the evolution of pity from The Iliad to Bleak House. Characters suffer and die in The Iliad with no moral judgment or sense of injustice; it is the will of the gods. By the time of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, nearly 2,500 years later, suffering is avoidable, the result of errors or malevolence, and it can be ameliorated. Pity, Nabokov implies, has developed as a preferred evolutionary trait, just as surely as human intelligence or the ability to digest milk.

Throughout the twentieth century, most European countries have issued stamps that have both postage value and charity value. The buyer of the stamps can use the stamp he bought for postage aware of the fact that a portion of the proceeds are going to the dedicated charity. The Red Cross has often been the beneficiary of these stamps. Beginning in 1953, France began issuing annual stamp booklets with a charity designation for the Red Cross. The first couple of booklets are pricey. The later ones are very affordable and allow a collector to enjoy stamp collecting and be part of a great humanitarian movement at the same time.

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