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A World of Thanks: World War I Belgian Embroidered Flour Sacks

View the flour sack exhibit

History of the Flour Sacks

1915-36 WWI Belgian Relief ship 1915-43 Men unloading cargo from a ship's hold. Commission for Relief in Belgium 1916-21 Sacks of flour in a warehouse 1919-65 Flour sacks in a Paris gift shop 1941-A68A, June 1941 Herbert Hoover at Stanford College in Palo Alto, CA with display of flour sacks.

The Commission for Relief in Belgium was established during the World War I under the chairmanship of Herbert Hoover, for the purpose of providing food relief to war torn Belgium . The CRB operated entirely with voluntary efforts and was able to feed 11,000,000 Belgians between 1914 and 1919 by raising the necessary money, obtaining voluntary contributions of food, shipping the food past the German submarine blockades and army occupied areas, and controlling the food distribution in Belgium.

The CRB shipped 697,116,000 pounds of flour to Belgium and evidence indicates that sugar and grains were also sent. The flour was packaged in cotton bags by American mills. The movement of thesebagsthroughout Belgium was carefully controlled by the CRB since cotton was in great demand for the manufacture of German ammunition and also because the CRB feared that the flour sacks would be taken out of Belgium , refilled with inferior flour, and resold as relief flour. As a result, the empty flour sacks were carefully accounted for and distributed to professional schools, sewing workrooms, convents, and individual artists.

Separate from the trade schools of Belgium , the professional schools specialized in training girls to sew, embroider, and make lace, and the sewing workrooms were large centers established in the major Belgian cities during the war to provide work for the thousands of unemployed. Girls and women made famous Belgian lace, embroidered textiles and repaired and remade clothing in these workrooms.

The flour sacks were used by these various Belgian groups to make new clothing, accessories, pillows, bags, and other functional items. Many women chose to embroider over the mill logo and the brand name of flour, but entirely original designs were sometimes created on the sacks and then embroidered, painted, or stenciled on the fabric. Frequent additions to the flour sacks were Belgian messages of gratitude to the Americans; embellishments of lace; the Belgian and American flags; the Belgian lion; the Gallic cock; the American eagle; symbols of peace, strength, and courage; the Belgian colors of red, yellow, and black; and the American colors of red, white, and blue. Artists, in particular, used the flour sacks as the canvas background for creating original oil paintings.

Differences appear in the designs and messages of the embroidered and painted flour sacks, due to the fact that Belgium is composed of two distinct groups of people: the Walloons or French speaking people in the south and the Flemish or Dutch speaking population in the north.

The completed flour sacks were carefully controlled and distributed to shops and organizations in Belgium , England , and the United States for thepurpose of raising funds for food relief and to aid the prisoners of war. Many were also given as gifts to the member of the Commission for Relief in Belgium out of gratitude for the aid given the Belgian people.

Herbert Hoover was given several hundred of these flour sacks as gifts and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum has one of the largest collections of World War I flour sacks in the world.

View the flour sack exhibit

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
P.O. Box 488
210 Parkside Drive
West Branch, IA 52358