The idea came from a businessman in St. Louis. In 1911, a banker named Ben Altheimer launched that city’s first Bundle Day—a day set aside to collect and give out clothes to the poor and unemployed.
Bundle Day spread to New York in 1915. A Bundle Day committee, part of the Mayor’s Committee on Unemployment, was formed, headed by women with last names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Hewitt.
They convinced pastors to mention Bundle Day in their sermons, and they printed tags to be handed out to parishioners that requested they donate “bundles” of garments for men, women, and children.
Railroad stations, department stores, and express companies agreed to transport the bundles. Police stations and schools were serving as drop-off locations, wrote The New York Times on January 31, 1915.
“[Sic] no coat or wrap could be so ragged that it would not be welcome, and [sic] no pair of shoes so hopelessly worn that it should be omitted from a bundle,” the committee announced. They had recruited teams of unemployed cobblers and other tradesmen to transform old garments, paying them 15 cents an hour, so nothing would go to waste.
Bundle Day was scheduled for February 4, and based on newspaper articles, it seemed to have lasted at least a week—and served lots of New Yorkers. The unemployment rate then was an estimated 16.2 percent.
“More than 100 women, shivering from the sharp, biting wind, stood in line yesterday morning at Bundle Day headquarters, 208 and 210 Fifth Avenue, waiting to receive the warm clothing that were being passed out as rapidly as possible by scores of attendants,” wrote the Times on February 10.
“Scores of other applicants, several of them invalid old men, were without coats, and stood shivering in lightweight tattered summer clothing. When possible these were provided for first.”
So what happened to Bundle Day? It appeared to have been held in the city for several years, then died out at some point; the last newspaper articles about it date to the early 1920s.
[Photos: George Bain Collection, Library of Congress]