Stage Women's War Relief was founded in 1917 to organize charitable giving in support of the war effort. Its founders, led by playwright and director Rachel Crothers, included the actress and playwright Louise Closser Hale and actresses Dorothy Donnelly, Josephine Hull, Minnie Dupree, Elizabeth Tyree and Louise Drew. The organization established workrooms for sewing uniforms and other garments (with total output totaling 1,863,645 articles), set up clothing and food collection centers, sold Liberty Bonds, and opened a canteen on Broadway for servicemen. It also presented benefit performances to raise money, including some held in a temporary "Liberty Theater" built outside the New York Public Library. In total, the group raised nearly $7,000,000 for the war effort.
At the beginning of World War II in 1939, Crothers reestablished the Stage Women's War Relief as a branch of the British War Relief Society. The revived organization's members included Mary Antoinette "Toni" Perry, Helen Hayes, Lynn Fontaine, and Tallulah Bankhead. They began fundraising and organizing clothing donations for European refugees. In 1941, with the entry of the United States into the war, the organization was renamed The American Theatre Wing of the Allied War Relief and shifted its focus to the American war effort.
Under the leadership of Perry and Crothers, the Wing opened the Stage Door Canteen to entertain American servicemen in New York. The first canteen was in the basement of the 44th Street Theatre, and similar entertainment and dining venues were established in Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Newark, and San Francisco, as well as abroad in London and Paris. In the US canteens, servicewomen were denied entry, although this was not the case in the European locations.
Lauren Bacall worked as a hostess in the New York Stage Door Canteen, and later recalled seeing Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine washing dishes and serving coffee there. The Andrews Sisters were frequent performers. The Stage Door Canteen made its way into national popular culture with a 1942 weekly radio show and a 1943 movie called Stage Door Canteen.
After World War II, the Wing founded "The Community Players" to assist war veterans and their families on their return home. Co-chaired of the Community Players was Katharine Cornell, who was active on the Stage Door Canteen.