Belgian Collections in Figures 2022

Four years ago, I began researching the origin of decorated flour sacks in WWI.

In the Textile Research Centre (TRC) in Leiden, the Netherlands, my fascination originated as it allowed me to discover the existence of these sacks. It led to research questions, “Where in Belgium could I view embroidered flour sacks; which museums and public collections preserve WWI flour sacks?”

The Flanders’ List of Masterpieces includes nine flour sacks, eight in public ownership (In Flanders Fields Museum collection) and one in private ownership. In 2016, the motivation for safeguarding this cultural heritage was, “This is one of the few material witnesses of food aid during World War I as there are few such embroidered flour sacks in public collections in our country.”

Many flour sacks passed through my hands: In Flanders Fields Museum, 2019. Photos: Marc Dejonckheere

By now I have tracked down hundreds of decorated flour sacks. I have held many in my hands, I photographed them and processed their details in my “Register of WWI Flour Sacks”. A year and a half ago, in the blog “Belgian Collections in Figures 2020”, I reported on 235 registered flour sacks. Now I count 310 flour sacks in the register, an increase of over 30%.

Time for an update: this blog presents the key figures of the Belgian collections as of January 2022.
Are you interested in a particular section? Then please use the links to my dozens of previous stories on decorated flour sacks for more information.

Belgian public and private collections

17 public and 25 private collections collectively contain 310 WWI flour sacks, with 196 sacks (63%) in the public collections [1] and 114 sacks (37%) in the private collections.

Bag of flour sack “Belgian Relief Flour”, 1915. Belgian private collection

Original and decorated flour sacks
Original/unprocessed flour sacks are emptied flour sacks, which remained as they were, cotton sacks with original printing of colored letters, logos, pictorial marks and stamps.

Decorated flour sacks are the emptied flour sacks that have been transformed in Belgium into cushion covers, wall ornaments, runners, pouches, bags, tea hats, aprons, dresses, jackets, or pants.

In the Belgian collections, 130 (42%) flour sacks are original/unprocessed and 180 (58%) are decorated.

The distribution of original and decorated flour sacks in the public and private collections, respectively, shows considerable differences.
In absolute numbers the distribution is as follows:

Original flour sacks
The public collections contain the largest part (87%) of the original/unprocessed flour sacks, while 13% of the original flour sacks are in private hands.

Isabella and Paul Errera. Photo: internet

A 100 original flour sacks are kept in three museums: the Royal Art & History Museum (RAHM) in Brussels preserves 54 of these flour sacks, collected during the Great War by textile expert and collector Mrs. Isabella Errera.
The WHI/Royal Army Museum has several dozen original flour sacks in its collection.
Musée de la Vie wallonne (MVW) in Liège preserves the educational series of the Welsch collection: 12 original/unprocessed and 12 decorated flour sacks with the same print in each pair.
Both RAHM and MVW seem to have consciously collected original flour sacks. Material and original printing were the reasons for preservation. Monsieur Welsch defined the printings as embroidery patterns. Madame Errera captured used materials of cotton and jute, printing techniques, colors and logo designs from overseas.

Flour sack “Yellowstone”, worked (embroidered) and original, 1915, donation Welsch. Coll. Musée de la Vie wallonne

Decorated flour sacks
46% of the decorated flour sacks are in public ownership and 54% in private ownership.
Throughout Belgium, many households have acquired and preserved one or more flour sacks as family heirlooms through grandparents or other family members. Knowledge and awareness of the history of the Belgian WWI flour sacks allows continued and increasing recognition of the country’s national heritage.

Flour sack “Sperry Mills, American Indian”, embroidered. Coll. and photo: Belgian private collection

Active private collectors visit flee markets, garage sales, thrift and brocante stores, local and online auctions through which several collectors have built up wonderful flour sack collections.
The transfer of decorated flour sacks from private owners to public collections takes place in small steps.

Young Belgian embroiderers of flour sacks in Mons. Photo collection of the Musée de la Vie wallonne

The crafts
Painting and embroidery were the main techniques used to decorate the flour sacks: 60 sacks were painted, 145 sacks were embroidered. Several sacks underwent both, they were first painted, then embroidered.

In public collections, 24% of the flour sacks are painted (by artists such as Godefroid Devreese, Armand Rassenfosse and Henri Thomas) and 76% are embroidered.

Armand Rassenfosse, Nu (Nude), 1915. Photo: Belgian private collection

In private collections, 32% of the flour sacks are painted (e.g., the painted flour sacks in Dendermonde) and 62% are embroidered.

The origin of the flour sacks

Pictorial trademark of the decorated flour sack “Portland”, Oregon, USA. Coll. and photo: Mons Memorial Museum

The countries of origin of the flour sacks are the United States and Canada. The original printing on the flour sacks provides this information.

Several decorated flour sacks lack the indication of origin because the original print was cut away in Belgium when flour sacks were transformed into wall hangings, tablecloths and table runners, bags, etc. They are included in the category “Unknown”.

Some (decorated) sacks are mistakenly labeled as “Belgian relief flour sacks”, they are not original “American” flour sacks. This is also the case for some embroideries made by Belgian prisoners of war. This is the category “Belgium”.

83% of the flour sacks have as their origin the USA, 11% are from Canada and of 3% the origin is unknown.

Thanks to the cooperation and help of many people, I was able to collect the data of 310 American/ Belgian Relief flour sacks preserved in Belgium.
I expect that hundreds more sacks will have been preserved by Belgian families. They are well hidden in cupboards, attics, cellars, sometimes forgotten…

Sacks are full of memories. Every sack houses a fragile and precious story.

Many thanks to Georgina Kuipers, Jason Raats, Florianne van Kempen and Tamara Raats. With their expert advice and work I have created my “Register of WWI Flour Sacks”.
Thanks to Georgina Kuipers for her attentive corrections to the English translations of my blogs.

[1] On my website under “Museums” the numbers of decorated flour sacks in Belgian collections are different for two reasons:
– a few publicly accessible institutions display flour sacks from private collections;
– I discovered the collection of 62 flour sacks of MAS Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp after writing this blog.

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