Back in 1924, if you went to a movie theater, you would likely see Americans standing in line with cans of condensed milk. The milk was their price of admission to the show. It was collected by the Near East Relief Committee, a U.S. aid organization that was established to help Greek and Armenian refugees fleeing the massacres and deportations taking place in Ottoman Turkey.
Children throughout the nation also carried cans of milk to school. It was not for their own lunch but instead placed in a donation barrel for Christian children that were impacted by the wars.
A “Milk Train” went across the United States collecting milk and other supplies. All these donations were given to the Near East Relief Committee, which distributed them to refugee centers and hospitals set up throughout the region, including hundreds of thousands of orphan children in Syria, Armenia, Greece, and Palestine.
Recognizing the immense influence of media, the NER enlisted the “world’s best known boy” and most prominent child star in Hollywood at the time to carry the NER message to the masses. In the early 1920’s, child actor Jackie Coogan—later widely known as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family—lent his star power to the worthy cause of relief efforts to the starving children in the Near East.
Coogan launched “Jackie Coogan’s Circus” in Hollywood with the mission of obtaining food and clothing to donate to the dependent children of the Near East. With the aid of his side shows, band, bareback riders, acrobats, clowns, camels, lions, and everything in between, Jackie raised $3,500 by charging an admission in the form of a bundle of clothing or shoes or two cans of condensed milk. More than 7,500 people attended Jackie’s circus.
Most significantly, Jackie Coogan embarked on a tour of the United States and a four-month trip to Europe on behalf of the starving children of the Near East. In the U.S., Coogan visited 25 American cities in just August of 1924 in the interest of the relief fund, including Albuquerque, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburg, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark and New York, to name a few.
Every school child in the U.S. was asked to bring contributions to the collection stations. Boy Scouts, milk companies, and various organizations helped collect the supplies under the direction of the NER. Following his American tour, he then set sail for Europe, commanding a voyage to Greece, Syria, Armenia, and the Holy Land.
Thereafter, Coogan led a “Children’s Crusade of Mercy,” and with the help of his star power, successfully raised and sent a million dollar shipload of provisions to aid the orphans of the Near East. He personally set sail from New York City to Greece and made the presentation of the $1,000,000 worth of supplies to the representatives of the NER and the orphans themselves.
At the time, a benefit performance of the latest Coogan film, “Little Robinson Crusoe,” preceded his departure. The Los Angeles Times reported that more than 3,500 cans of condensed milk were received, two from each Boy Scout who attended.
The Near East Relief Committee carried out numerous programs to help refugees, including soup kitchens and orphanages caring for orphans. They helped families rebuild their livelihoods through agricultural projects and vocational efforts.
Donations from America helped Near East Relief carry out their heroic work. Americans responded generously to the needy in the Middle East.