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100 years of the poppy: Why its design hasn't really changed


This year marks the poppy’s 100th anniversary in Canada. For a century now, the small red flower has been a symbol of remembrance for those across the country.

To commemorate the occasion, the Royal Canadian Legion has unveiled a special edition of the poppy that replicates the original version. While there are notable differences between the older poppy design and newer ones most Canadians are familiar with, the concept has remained largely the same, even after all these years.

Nujma Bond, communications manager for the legion’s national headquarters, says this is likely due to the poppy’s longstanding status as a symbol of remembrance, and all the significance it holds.

“The poppy itself as a symbol of remembrance has been with us for so long now, for several generations…so it has come to have great meaning,” Bond told over the phone. “We know it represents our fallen veterans and the sacrifices that they made so that we can enjoy the freedoms that we enjoy in Canada today.”

The iconic red flower has always represented remembrance, even with subtle changes to its design, explains Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum. This is a large part of the reason why it continues to be so recognizable today, he says.

“We live in an age now where we often see wearable acts of commemoration, think of pink ribbons and yellow ribbons and red ribbons, and they all have specific meaning,” he said to over the phone. “But the poppy is certainly the most prevalent and long-lasting of these wearable symbols.”

An example of a handmade poppy. (CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM)

An example of a handmade poppy. (CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM)


The poppy’s origins stem from the famous wartime poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian John McCrae. The references to poppies inspired a French woman named Anna Guerin to adopt the flower as an emblem of remembrance in honour of those who fought and died in the First World War.

“In 1921, she took her idea to the precursor to the Royal Canadian Legion, which was the Great War Veterans’ Association and it was accepted,” Bond explained. “Now, here we are, a hundred years later with the poppy still as a very central and symbolic means of remembrance.”

The original poppies distributed in 1921 were handmade using fabric, Bond notes, similar to the commemorative poppy released this year. Over time, they developed into the design most Canadians are used to seeing today.

“What we have today [is] a little bit more of a rigid poppy. The centre was at one time green, and has since changed to the black centre that we see today,” said Bond, pointing out that the black centre is more consistent with what red poppies actually look like.

Along with the red fabric, this year’s commemorative poppy features a rigid stem and a ribbon attached that reads “100 years, The Symbol of Remembrance.”

“It really is very similar to the original [poppy],” said Bond. “That original image was used to help design what today's anniversary poppy looks like.”

A Canadian Remembrance Day poppy from 1921 (left) and the commemorative poppy celebrating its 100th year in Canada (right). (GEORGE METCALF ARCHIVAL COLLECTION, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM / ROYAL CANADIAN LEGION)

A Canadian Remembrance Day poppy from 1921 (left) and the commemorative poppy celebrating its 100th year in Canada (right). (GEORGE METCALF ARCHIVAL COLLECTION, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM / ROYAL CANADIAN LEGION)


As Cook explains, the poppy has always served as more than just a symbol.

“The poppy really had two important functions – the first was as a symbol of remembrance, a wearable icon…to show the act of remembrance, commemoration, or bearing witness to the loss,” he said. “The second element, which I think is equally important, was that it was [part of] a fundraiser that was meant to raise money for wounded veterans and their family members.”

In the aftermath of the First World War, Guerin founded a charity to help rebuild war-torn regions of France. She would create poppies out of fabric and sell them to raise funds for those most impacted by the war. This was part of her pitch to the Great War Veterans’ Association in 1921, and raising money for veterans’ needs is something to still continues today.

“This symbol also means support,” said Bond. “When funds are raised, for example, during the national poppy campaign each year, this symbol helps us raise those funds and provide the support that we do to veterans across the country.”

While the poppy’s design hasn’t changed much throughout the years, Cook insists that its meaning has certainly evolved. While it was initially rooted in the First World War, it has now come to represent the service and sacrifice of multiple generations of Canadian men and women in times of war, and in the search for peace. Today, it’s possible that the poppy’s significance has even extend beyond that, says Cook, to include the families of those who served as well.

“It is that complex breeding of multiple memories over time that has allowed this wearable symbol to continue to take on new meaning,” he said. “That is certainly one of the reasons why it continues to resonate with Canadians.” Top Stories

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