May Margaret Egan, canteen worker.

May Margaret Egan, ca. 1919.

Born in St. Paul, May Margaret Egan (1887–1976) was the daughter of Illinois engineer and railway executive John Myers Egan and his wife Susanna. She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1911. After working as a secretary in Connecticut, she sailed for France in November 1917 to serve in Red Cross canteens in Chalon and St.-Pierre-des-Corps. In December 1917, she wrote this letter to her mother that was published in the 11 Jan 1918 Dixon [IL] Evening Telegraph:

…Once in a while, as I trot across the bridge in the midst of the great stream of army trucks that goes on and on forever, or preside over some five hundred soldiers in the great reading room, it suddenly comes over me what a new life it is for me. … There is, of course, a certain effort in keeping warm and clean, as the wood has to be coaxed to burn and the water has to be carried up two flights, but compared to what I expected to undergo, I am living in the softest luxury. I am living very near the canteen but go for lunch and dinner about five minutes’ walk across the river. ….

There are about twenty workers, I should say, and two “directoires.” We work in four shifts, changing each week, and some shifts have more than others, due to heavier work at different hours. The canteen is run twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four, being closed from seven to eight in the morning for cleaning.

The shifts are:

8 a.m.–1 p.m.
1 p.m.–7 p.m.
7 p.m.–11:30 p.m.
11:30 p.m.–7 a.m.

Then there are two of the workers every week on a split shift, from 10:30 to 1 in the morning, and from 4 to 7 in the afternoon. … There is no shift longer than seven hours, which is certainly not too much. During the busy hours of the day, some French ladies from the town come in and work on four-hour shifts, which of course helps a great deal. If there are enough workers the work is arranged like this. One is in the cashier’s coup, selling tickets to the men. They look over the list of food, make up their minds what they want and buy little tickets to hand over as they get their food. Then there are two of us pouring coffee and chocolate. We have fairly small pitchers, very easy to handle, and fill them from great gas heated urns behind us, and pour into the cups that the men hold out to us. We filled two thousand cups in four hours one night this week. I was one of the fillers. Then in the middle of the counter stands a worker, selling cold things—little cakes, sausage, apples, cheese, etc., and oysters, which they simply adore and eat by the dozen. Then comes a worker for the full meal, for which they pay fifteen cents. They get soup, meat and vegetable, and a big piece of bread and a little ticket handed back to them which enables them to get a cup of coffee at the coffee place. These meals are dished out in the kitchen and shoved through to you. You [sic] also sell salad and order shirred eggs cooked at this place. …. In front of us is a great stretch of tables and chairs, where they bear their food and eat it. Then beyond that there is a great reading room where they write and read and take naps, and a worker sits in there to sell them post cards and give out pens and books, etc. Then beyond that there is a great dormitory where they can sleep, and be called in time for their trains. . . .There is a crew of excitable French women servants working like anything in the kitchen, and mysterious soldiers who appear carrying the heavy baskets of oysters, etc., and walk around, keeping the room picked up. I am not at all straight in the mind as to who really runs the place—it was equipped by the French military authorities, and handed over to our Red Cross half way, but they seem to be in close cooperation still, which makes it much more interesting.

Of course all this I have described is more or less like any cafeteria but it is so big and so full all the time. You see this place where we are is one of the most important railway junction[s] for trains going to the front. …. So … we have this steady stream. … As you see them in the thousands, it makes you realize the size of the army, and what a cruel thing it is that the whole life of the nation should be disrupted like this. ….Many of them are gentlemen, the poilus [French soldiers] I mean, since absolutely the whole nation is at war. But the others, too, instead of finding it uncongenial to serve them is the greatest pleasure. They all seem so small and many of them so slight and when you see them with their full equipment of over 90 kilos, as we do when they rush in for coc[oa] just before boarding a train, you wonder how they can stand it. And yet they have proved the quickest marchers and best fighters in this war. The American soldiers certainly have something to live up to. (3, 8)

Egan returned to the United States in December 1918. In June 1919, she married John Stogdell Stokes of Moorestown, NJ (1870–1947), a principal of the box manufacturing firm Stokes & Smith; they had two children. Her husband, a noted collector, later served as president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Diego Rivera painted this 1930 portrait of Egan. Her New York Times obituary stated that she was a leader of nurses’ aides in the Abington (PA) area for the Red Cross during World War II and was an organizer of library and book cart services for patients with tubercular conditions at Valley Forge (PA) Military Hospital during the Korean War.

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