Reusing Flour Bags as Clothing

Decorated flour sack from flour factory in Buffalo, NY, with embroidery and needlework “Merci aux Américains” by “École Morichar de Saint-Gilles”, 1915; Fig. “From Aid to Art”, San Francisco Folk Art Museum, 1987, Hoover Institution Library & Archives Collection, Stanford University, USA.

One of the goals of my research is to unravel the mythical history of the origins of the decorated Flour Bags in WWI. Decorated Flour Bags in WWI can be both embroidered, decorated with needlework and with lace, as well as painted on by artists. Flour Bags have been transformed into clothing.

Who had the idea of reusing these bags and where and when did that start? Was it a Belgian initiative or did it happen due to American suggestion?

Belgian newspapers and magazines
To find answers to my questions, I systematically went through a number of Belgian newspapers and illustrated magazines from the end of 1914, beginning of 1915; these have been digitized and are online.

I had already found some American publications before and combined them with the information from Belgium.

Color photo in “1914 ILLUSTRÉ, no. 22, February 1915”: Flour arrives in Brussels

I have split my analysis and findings into four parts:

  1. Reuse of Flour Bags into clothing.
  2. Transformation of Flour Bags with embroidery, needlework and lace into decorated Flour Bags, Belgian primary sources.
  3. Transformation of Flour Bags into painted decorated Flour Bags, Belgian primary sources.
  4. Transformation of Flour Bags into decorated Flour Bags, American primary sources.

Reusing Flour Bags as clothing
In this blog I will discuss the origin of the reuse of Flour Bags as clothing. Two primary sources, one Belgian from early 1915 and one American from late 1914, bear witness to this.

1) January 1915: Madame Vandervelde

Madame Vandervelde; Fig. gw.geneanet.org

The earliest Belgian source with information that I have found so far is an article about Madame Vandervelde. Her maiden name was Charlotte ‘Lalla’ Speyer, British by birth but from German parents, she was married in 1901 to her second husband, the Belgian Minister of State, Emile Vandervelde. The couple divorced immediately after WWI. [1]

Article in “Le XXe siècle: journal d’union et d’action catholique” of January 16, 1915

Since October 1914, Madame Vandervelde had been in the United States to ask for help for the Belgian population in need. In Buffalo, New York, she gave a lecture and received 10,000 bags of flour as a gift. The bags were made of fine cotton and intended for reuse.

La propagande pro-belge aux États-Unis.
‘Madame Vandervelde, la femme du Ministre d’Etat, est aux
États-Unis depuis plus de trois mois. Elle y a donné et y donne sur la Belgique et les horreurs, dont elle a été victime, une série de conférences qui ont le plus grand succès et dans lesquelles on acclame la Belgique et les Belges. …..
A Buffalo, des industriels lui ont offert un bâteau chargé de 10.000 sacs de farine, – sacs confectionnés en fine toile et en étoffe, afin qu’ils puissent servir par la suite et être transformés en vêtements et en linges pour les habitants. …

Translation: “In Buffalo, manufacturers have donated to her a ship with 10,000 bags of flour – bags made of fine canvas and cloth, so that these can afterwards be used and transformed into clothing and towels for the inhabitants…. “

Madame Vandervelde had apparently set up her own relief fund, the ‘Madame Vandervelde Fund’, to house all the donations she received in the United States. I have deduced this from:

Unprocessed flour sack Madame Vandervelde Fund.  Image: Imprimerie Société Anonyme Belge de Phototypie (Collection IFFM)

a) the unprocessed Flour Bag on a photo of a Flour Bags-collage, provided to me by the In Flanders Fields Museum (IFFM), Ypres, with the text: “War Relief Donation Flour from Madame Vandervelde Fund – Belgian Relief Fund, Buffalo, N.Y. U.S.A. 49 Lbs.”[2]

Decorated flour sack “Madame Vandervelde Fund”, collection IFFM, Ypres

 

 

b) the decorated Flour Bag, which I see online at the ‘Ieperse Collecties’ (Ypres Collections). Object number IFF 003008 is an “Embroidered and painted Flour Bag attached on a stretcher with the text “War Relief Donation – Flour 1914-1915 – from Madame Vandervelde Fund “. At the top the portrait of Emile Vandervelde, Minister of State of Belgium.”

 

2) November 1914: Mr. William C. Edgar

The earliest American source on the reuse of Flour Bags as clothing comes from Mr. William C. Edgar, editor-in-chief of the American newspaper “The Northwestern Miller” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On November 4, 1914, he started the aid campaign “The Miller’s Relief Movement”. [3] The newspaper, a trade magazine for grain millers, made a request to subscribers and advertisers, in particular the flour mills, to donate flour for Belgium’s aid. The quality of the flour was specified in detail and the packaging had to meet the following conditions: cotton bags, sturdy for transport, dimensions suitable for handling by one person and last but not least “suitable for reuse“:

Instructions were issued at the same time for packing the flour. These stipulated that a strong forty-nine pound cotton sack be used. This was for three reasons: the size of the package would be convenient for individual handling in the ultimate distribution; the use of cotton would, to a certain extent, help the then depressed cotton market, and finally and most important, after the flour was eaten, the empty cotton sack could be used by the housewife for an undergarment, the package thus providing both food and clothing. ‘(Final Report: The Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement 1914-1915, p. 9). [4]

Tradition

Undergarment made from Flour Bag. Fig.: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum, Iowa, USA

The motive for reuse was widely used among the American female population. Reuse of cotton bags had already been established for decades and earlier. Cotton was a product of the country, bags were usable pieces of cotton. It provided the sparing housewife with simple items of clothing for free or for a low price. After good washing, the seamstresses cut the pattern of the clothes out of the bags and mainly made undergarments for their own family. After the First World War, the reuse of cotton bags developed further in the US from the 1920s.

Lou Hoover poses in a cotton evening gown to encourage women to wear cotton clothing, in particular evening gowns (around 1930); Fig. firstladies.org

During the depression in the 1930s, the Americans protected their distressed cotton industry, reusing cotton bags was a sign of frugality and also a patriotic duty. Product development and marketing efforts by bag suppliers resulted in washable prints, washable labels and finally colorful, fashionable and hip prints on the bags. In the 40s and 50s it was particularly fashionable to wear garments made from bags. A true “Feedsack” cult prevailed among rural women to sew clothes from used cotton bags that had served as packages of chicken feed, flour, sugar and rice for the entire family. [5]

Photo in ‘L’ événement Illustré: L’Ouvroir des Dames Namuroises’, April 1915, no. 9
Jacket made from Flour Bag. Fig.: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum, Iowa, USA

The reuse of flour bags into clothing would have been taken up by Belgian women’s organizations under the protection of the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation, as soon as the relief work had properly started in January 1915.

It was typical of Belgian women that they not only made undergarments from the flour bags, but also cute, happy dresses for their children. In Heverlee, 80 children, mostly girls from around 4 to 6 years old, were photographed, dressed in Flour Sacks with the “American Commission” logo.

Image in Europeana Collections (estimated 1915)

Mr. Robert Bruyninckx shared this black and white photo of 14 × 9 cm in the Europeana Collections under the title: “Group photo with children dressed in clothes made from bags of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium.”

Description: “Group photo with Jeanne Caterine Charleer (born in Heverlee on August 17, 1910), top row, 7th from the right. Children dressed in clothes made from bags of the American Commission for Relief, with the American flag in the background. The photo is a family piece. Jeanne Caterine Charleer was the mother of Robert Bruyninckx.”[6]

Girl in Flour Bag dress from California. Fig.: Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Stanford University, V.S.

A girl in New York was photographed in a “Belgian” dress with the “Sperry Flour” logo from California.

Conclusion

Although I have only found two primary sources to date, I nevertheless come to a provisional conclusion about the origin of the reuse of Flour Bags as clothing: this practice was taken up in Belgium at the suggestion of American relief workers. The Belgian women found the Flour Bags so special, they made, apart from undergarments, also nice dresses for their children.

 

[1] Gubin, Eliane, Dictionnaire des femmes belges: XIXe et XXe siècle, p. 510-512; gw.geneanet.org: “Charlotte Hélène Frédérique Marie Speyer”

[2] Delmarcel, Guy, Pride of Niagara. Best Winter Wheat. Amerikaanse Meelzakken als textiele getuigen van Wereldoorlog I. Brussel, Jubelpark: Bulletin van de Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis (‘American flour sacks as textile witnesses of World War I’. Brussels, Cinquantenaire: Bulletin of the Royal Museums of Art and History), deel 84, 2013, p. 97-126

[3] See also my blog: “A Celebrity Flemish Flour Bag in The Land of Nevele” of October 25, 2018

[4] The Millers ’Belgian Relief Movement 1914-15 conducted by The Northwestern Miller. Final Report of its Director William C. Edgar, Editor of the Northwestern Miller, MCMXV

[5] Three sources to continue reading about ‘Feed Sacks’:
Linzee Kull McCray, Feed Sacks, The Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric, 2016/2019;
– Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 
For a few sacks more, online exhibition Textile Research Centre, Leiden, 2018
– Marian Ann J. Montgomery, 
Cotton and Thrift. Feed Sacks and the Fabric of American Households, 2019

[6] The group photo with the children in Heverlee in clothing from bags with the logo ‘American Commission’ is printed in the article by Ina Ruckebusch: ‘Belgische voedselschaarste en Amerikaanse voedselhulp tijdens WOI’ in: Patakon, tijdschrift voor bakerfgoed, (Belgian food scarcity and American food aid during WWI’ in: Patakon, Magazine about bakery heritage) 5 nr. 1 (2014) , p. 29.