World War I -- Life Histories/Section 018/Ruth Faison Shaw

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Ruth Faison Shaw was a North Carolinian teacher who volunteered in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) during World War I and started an English-speaking school in Rome. She was the first person to introduce finger painting to the United States in 1932.[1]


Ruth Faison Shaw (1889-1969) was born in Kenansville, North Carolina, and had four brothers.[2] She was an elementary school teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina, before World War I. In 1918 she traveled to France as a canteen volunteer for the YMCA. After the war ended she decided to stay in Europe. In January 1923 she founded an elementary school for English-speakers in Rome. She emphasized the arts in her teachings. One day Shaw found one of her students smearing iodine on a door, inspiring her to develop her own non-toxic finger paint. She thought including the arts in education was important, especially for younger children, who she thought could more easily express their thoughts artistically rather than verbally. [1] “During the summer of 1932, Shaw attended the Congress of the New Education Fellowship in Nice, (France), where she made contact with American progressive educators Harold Rugg and Thomas Munro. They were among those who expressed interest in learning more about Shaw and her work, and this led to her acceptance of a half-time position teaching art at the Dalton School in New York."[1] She opened a finger-painting exhibition in January of 1993 at the Dalton School. In March she opened another exhibition, which a New York Times reviewer applauded.[1] Shaw published Finger Painting: A Perfect Medium for Self-Expression in 1934. “Reviewers discussed the flowing lines and dreamlike forms which gave finger paintings abstract qualities similar to those found in Art Deco designs….They also emphasized the simplicity of the material and its power as a means of emotional release."[1] Shaw published two more books, Finger Painting and How I Do It and Shaw Finger-Paint: The Original Finger Paint. She died in 1969 in North Carolina. [2]

Social Context[edit]

Women in the YMCA During WWI[edit]

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in the United States in 1851. The YMCA provided safe-havens for soldiers in the Civil War and helped in the Spanish-American War. The organization thus had the expertise necessary to help care for American soldiers when the United States joined the war effort in 1917.[3] “General Order No. 26 directed that the Red Cross should look after the sick and wounded, while the YMCA should concern itself mainly with the instruction, amusement, and moral welfare of the troops."[3] The YMCA operated out of huts, ditches and buildings. The organization helped provide soldiers with a break from life on the battlefield. “The Y representatives, or secretaries, as they were known, created as cozy an environment as possible in those often flimsy structures” in order to make soldiers feel at home.[3] YMCA volunteers tended to injured soldiers, cooked them meals, gave them cigars and chocolate, and listened to their war stories. In 1917 the YMCA began recruiting female volunteers. Many of these women worked in canteens, which were kitchens for military camps. Shaw was one of these canteen workers. Due to a shortage of nurses, women’s responsibilities soon expanded to include tending to soldiers’ injuries in canteens and battlefront hospitals.[3] “The secretaries also found time to write letters for the soldiers, to establish a money order system, to search for lost relatives at home, to do shopping for the men, and – the best morale booster of all – to spend an hour of their time simply listening to men who wanted to tell someone their stories."[3] Women made hot chocolate and served treats. The YMCA also hired theater professionals from the United States to perform for soldiers “on shaky improvised stages, in hangars or railroad repair shops, in hospital wards, and even alongside muddy roads in big shell holes."[3] The newspaper The Stars and Stripes called vaudeville singer Elsie Janis “an oasis of color and vivacity in a dreary desert of frock-coated…lecturers who have been visited upon us."[4] The article implied that soldiers preferred entertainers over lecturers who came to visit the camps.[4]

The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919[edit]

In 1918 a mutation of the seasonal influenza virus spread across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The Spanish Influenza killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide and around 13,703 in North Carolina.[5] Shaw fearfully mentions the disease in letters to her relatives.[6] Soldier camps, with close quarters and many inhabitants, were breeding grounds for the virus.[5] “Tents and hastily constructed barracks were overcrowded with soldiers and sailors who shuttled across the country before shipping out to France as part of an unprecedented, worldwide migration of millions driven by the demands of war” (Nesbitt). For fear of appearing lenient, military officials still allowed events involving large groups of people, such as “rallies and massive troop movements."[5] This furthered the virus’ quick proliferation.


Finger Painting, a Perfect Medium for Self-Expression

Finger-Painting and How I Do It

Shaw Finger-Paint: The Original Finger Paint


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Stankiewicz, Mary Ann. "Self-Expression or Teacher Influence: The Shaw System of Finger-Painting." Art Education 37.2 (1984): 20-24.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mayer, Veronica. "Rediscovering Ruth Faison Shaw and Her Finger-Painting Method." Art Education 58.5 (2005): 6-11.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Gavin, Lettie. "The Women of the YMCA." American Women in World War I: They Also Served. Niwot, CO: U of Colorado, 1997. N. pag. Print.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "News from Our Own." The Red Cross Magazine 13 (1917): n. pag. American National Red Cross. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Nesbitt, Jim. "When Killer Flu Struck." The News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] 26 Nov. 2006: n. pag. NewsBank. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
  6. The Ruth Faison Shaw Papers, #3835, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.