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Red Cross – How Did The Symbol Originate?

The Red Cross is often considered to be the most recognized symbol in the world. It’s featured on hospital signs, ambulances, and on the uniforms of humanitarian workers. Put simply, it’s a ubiquitous symbol, signifying neutrality, empathy, hope and protection.

Here’s a look at its history and how it grew to become a global symbol.

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History of the Red Cross

the red cross
By Jon Harald Søby, PD.

The origins of the Red Cross date back to 1859, when a Swiss businessman by the name of Henry Dunant, witnessed the suffering of 40,000 wounded soldiers after the Battle of Solferino in Italy. He went on to write a book about this experience (A Memory of Solferino) and began to advocate for a neutral organization that would help soldiers on the battlefield regardless of their political affiliations.

In 1860, a Swiss-based committee planned out the national relief associations. In 1863, this became known as the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded, focusing mainly on war victims. This went on to become the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which expanded its scope to cover a wide range of peacetime humanitarian activities.  

In 1964, the first International Conference and the Geneva Convention were held. The American Red Cross was established by Clara Barton, who lobbied the US government to ratify the Geneva Convention.

The headquarters of the International Red Cross are in Geneva, Switzerland. The organization chose a red cross on a white background to be the symbol, which is an inversion of the Swiss flag – a white cross on a red background. This recognizes the link between the organization and Switzerland.

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Today, the Red Cross consists of several institutions, bound by the same values and goals. It’s the largest humanitarian network in the world and has a presence in almost every country.

What Does the Red Cross Symbolize?

red cross patches on medic bags
The Red Cross symbolizes hope and protection. See it here.

The red cross is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. It represents:

  • Protection – the main aim of the Red Cross is to protect those in need, assisting them as required.
  • Humanitarian aid – while the Red Cross started out as an organization to help wounded soldiers, today its goals are wide-reaching, including first aid, water safety, blood banks, maintaining child and welfare centers, and so on.
  • Neutrality – the Red Cross is focused on helping all people in need. As such, it doesn’t take a side in any fight, debate, or political issue. Those fighting know that they mustn’t attack anyone or anything that displays a red cross.
  • Hope – the symbol of the red cross embodies hope and positivity, even in the direst of times.

Is the Red Cross a Christian Organization?

vintage american red cross design cap
The red Cross is a humanitarian organization led by volunteers. See it here.

Contrary to some beliefs, the Red Cross is not a religious organization. One of its main objectives is to remain neutral. This includes not taking religious sides.

However, many have erroneously associated the symbol of the cross with Christianity. In many Middle Eastern countries, a Red Crescent is used instead of a red cross.

The Red Cross vs. The Red Crescent

red cross red crescent and red crystal side by side

In 1906, the Ottoman Empire insisted on using a red crescent instead of a red cross. As a result, the Red Crescent is the name used in Muslim countries. While this gave the red cross a slightly religious coloring, it still remains a secular organization.

In 2005, an additional emblem was created. Known as the red crystal, this emblem made it possible for countries unwilling to adopt either the red cross or the red crescent to join the Movement.

In Brief

In 1905, Henry Dunant became the first Swiss Nobel Laureate, when he won the Noble Peace Price for being the visionary, promoter, and co-founder of the Red Cross. The Red Cross remains one of the most important institutions across the globe, providing assistance and relief even in the most hard-hit hard to reach places.

Red cross symbolism
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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.