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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 12:21 GMT
Where did the idea to sell poppies come from?
Royal British Legion's Field of Remembrance in Westminster Abbey

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The first official poppy appeal was held 85 years ago in the UK. But when - and why - was the first poppy sold?

The red poppy worn around the world in remembrance of battlefield deaths has nothing to do with the blood shed in the brutal clashes of World War I.

Instead it symbolises the wild flowers that were the first plants to grow in the churned-up soil of soldiers' graves in Belgium and northern France. Little else could grow in the blasted soil that became rich in lime from the rubble.

Their paper-thin red petals were the first signs of life and renewal, and in 1915 inspired Canadian doctor John McCrae to pen perhaps the most famous wartime poem:

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row...

It was this poem which inspired an American war secretary to sell the first poppies to raise money for ex-soldiers.

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Two days before the Armistice was declared at 11am on 11 November 1918, Moina Michael was working in the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries' headquarters during its annual conference in New York.

While flipping through a copy of Ladies Home Journal, she came across McCrae's poem, and was so moved that she vowed to always wear a red poppy in remembrance.

Poppy lady

That same day she was given $10 by the conference delegates in thanks for her hard work, which she spent on 25 silk poppies. Returning to the office with one pinned to her coat, she distributed the rest amongst the delegates.

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Since this group had given her the money with which to buy the flowers, Ms Michael saw this as the first sale of memorial poppies. She then threw her efforts into campaigning to get the poppy adopted as a national remembrance symbol.

Two years later, the National American Legion's conference proclaimed the poppy as such. Among those at the conference was Madame E Guerin, from France, who saw poppy sales as a way to raise money for children in war-ravaged areas of France.

Having organised the sale of millions of poppies made by French widows in the United States, in 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig, a senior commander during WWI and a founder of the Royal British Legion, was sold on the idea (as were veterans' groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

So that autumn, the newly-established legion sold its first remembrance poppies. And so the tradition began.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Before this article I had no idea poppy wearing originated in the US. Nowadays, in New York at least, the tradition of using poppies as a symbol of remembrance has died out. I would be interested in seeing a follow up article asking "Where have all the poppies gone?"
Darren, expat in New York

The story of white poppies is also an interesting one. First brought in by the Women's Cooperative Guild in the 30s, they aim to echo the red poppy's sentiment of mourning the war dead, but combined with a pacifist resolve to never again send people to their death in this way - a much more hope-inspiring idea I think.
Alison, London

This puts a rather large hole in the white poppies are more Christian than red poppies argument - the colour (as some of us already knew) is solely to do with the actual colour of poppies!
Bryn Roberts, Richmond, North Yorkshire, UK

Cool story. I often wonder about the origin of traditions we all take for granted. Such as the yellow ribbon here in the United States. It certainly wasn't from Tie A Yellow Ribbon by Tony Orlando.
Bret, Austin, TX US

We must not forget. As a Jordanian Briton I lost a lot to war. Many have paid with their lives, the British boys deserve to be remembered. I wear a red one as a proud British man and a Black one to remember the many Arabs killed by the wars - some as a result of British actions and others to help the British. Nevertheless we must put our differences aside, stand tall and remember with our hearts and minds for the dead have no voice.
Ahmad Hmoud, Swindon

The poppy flower, in the language of flowers, means sympathy, not remembrance, which is represented by rosemary. So when I hear of people being criticised for not wearing a poppy it strikes me as especially ironic, considering these criticisers, and poppy-wearers, are showing a lack of sympathy with those who choose not to wear a fake flower for whatever personal reasons they may have.
Candida, Lisse, NL

As an ex-service person, I think that the poppy appeal is one of the most important appeals there is. It is important to remember the men and woman of the armed services who, in times of war, give so much for the freedom of others.
Kathryn, Chalfont St Giles

In today's times of growing pressure on the environment, can somebody explain how producing 36 million plastic poppies shows any respect for the people on this planet, living or dead? I think the time has come to think about other ways to show our respect for our war heroes.
Colin Tucker, Portsmouth, UK

Colin, the poppies are made of biodegradable paper. The stem, I grant you, is plastic.
Howard, Bakewell

Interesting to hear that poppies originated in America because when I wore one in New York a few years ago no one knew what it was for and it generated a lot of interest.
Stephen Brown, Wimbledon

No mention of the fact that these poppies are made by disabled ex-service people and their dependents at the Poppy Factory in Richmond, instead of the commercial company that makes the "more Christian" white poppies. See the excellent BBC Ouch site for more information.
Lizzie, London, England

An inspiring piece... anyone know how the red ribbon, the HIV symbol, came about? It is such background knowledge that makes people wear these symbols with reason and passion.
Murefu Barasa, Nairobi, Kenya

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