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On this month's cover is Vanishing Capes, a painting by artist and retired nurse Therese Cipiti Herron (for more about the artist, go to The work spotlights a relic of nursing history: the nurse's cape. "The uniform no longer worn is historically recognizable by the last generation of nurses still alive today," she says.

Figure. Vanishing Ca... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure.

The nurse's cape is an iconic image strongly associated with the caring, trust, and compassion of nurses practicing during some of the most trying times in our nation's history. It was a practical part of the nurse's wardrobe, providing warmth during chilly nights on hospital wards, while working in the community, and when caring for the wounded on the battlefield. Generally constructed of heavy, dark wool with an alternate lining color, the cape could be swiftly donned and allowed for quick recognition of the nurse in any situation. Just as a hero's cape evokes images of courage and lifesaving efforts in popular culture, the nurse's cape evoked images of confidence and comfort.


American Red Cross nurses who were called for active service during wartime were provided with a "blue cape lined in red bearing the insignia of the Red Cross," according to historian Shirley Powers's A Guide to American Red Cross Uniforms (2006). The cape's representation of nursing was so strong that the American Red Cross used imagery of a nurse wearing the blue and red cape on military recruitment posters during World Wars I and II. It was quite effective. During World War I, the organization recruited over 22,000 nurses to serve in the U.S. Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Many of these nurses served abroad at American base hospitals, in field units, and on ships, while others stayed stateside to support the military and to help combat the 1918 influenza pandemic. During World War II, the Red Cross recruited more than 212,000 nurses, with half certified to serve in the military. The remaining nurses assumed key health care roles in the civilian sector to backfill the positions left vacant as others went to war.


The American Red Cross no longer recruits for the military and no longer provides capes, although since 1906 it has awarded its nurses with a badge-which more than 400,000 nurses have received. (Since 1909, each badge has been uniquely numbered.) Nurses remain a vital part of the organization, with thousands of volunteers responding to disasters, helping to protect the nation's blood supply, providing health education, holding leadership positions across the country, and promoting health equity and well-being. The Red Cross chief nurse serves on the Federal Nursing Service Council that represents and supports the nation's federal and civilian nurses.


Symbols are important, and capes can inspire stories about grand gestures to save a life or reduce suffering. Although today's nurses don't wear capes, each day they mitigate and prevent suffering through actions large and small. Wherever nurses practice, they are advocates for the people and the communities they serve-and they continue to inspire the public's trust and confidence.


March is Red Cross Month. To learn more about volunteer opportunities for nurses and nursing students, visit M. MacIntyre, PhD, RN, PHN, FAAN, chief nurse, American Red Cross, and Linda L. Fahey, DNP, RN, CENP, executive assistant to the chief nurse