On Thanksgiving Day 2020, as a thank you to all who inspire, encourage and inform me in my research on the decorated flour sacks, I share the story of the Thanksgiving Ship ORN that sailed from the Philadelphia harbor 106 years ago on November 25, 1914, loaded with sacks of flour on the way to Belgium, as it was waved goodbye by thousands of people, including a special guest: Madame Lalla Vandervelde.
Collecting relief supplies
Immediately after the outbreak of the “European” war in August 1914, spontaneous campaigns arose among the people of Canada and the United States to raise money and goods to help victims of the violence.
The relief efforts for the Belgian refugees and the population in occupied Belgium were led by Belgians, living in Canada and the US: the Belgian Consul Pierre Mali, the Consul Generals, businesspeople, prominent private individuals and emigrants, supported in a special way by Madame Lalla Vandervelde, the wife of a Belgian Minister of State, who traveled across the US to draw attention to the Belgian cause and to call for American aid.
Their call was heard by local newspapers and magazines, who with great zeal made urgent appeals to their readers to help out by depositing money in funds specially created for the purpose.
The transport of the relief supplies from America to Europe across the Atlantic Ocean had to be done by ship, but that caused a financial headache. This was not the case in Canada, where the government paid for the transportation. But in the US, who would pay for the transportation?
In the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the immediate response came from department store magnate and philanthropist John Wanamaker (Philadelphia, July 11, 1838 – December 12, 1922). He took initiative and chartered two ships himself to bring relief supplies to Belgium.
The first ship chartered by Wanamaker was the steamer Thelma. Loading the ship attracted a lot of interest, the “Philadelphia Inquirer” published about it daily. *)
On Thursday, November 12, 1914, the ship departed after a brief official ceremony at which Mayor Blankenburg of Philadelphia spoke:
“My fellow-citizens, twenty-two years ago Philadelphia sent a relief ship-the Indiana-to give aid to the suffering Russian peasants, far away from their own homes. Today Philadelphia is sending another relief ship, the Thelma, this time to the suffering people, the unfortunate people of Belgium. It shows the greatness of the heart of the Philadelphia people. It shows the power of the press, for had it not been for the Philadelphia newspapers I do not believe that this ship would today be ready to sail. The newspapers of Philadelphia did everything in fact to make it possible to send this ship.”
The Girard College Band was on the pier playing the “Star Spangled Banner”.
The mayor asked the crowds of hundreds of men, women and children to pay tribute to Captain Wolff Hendrickson and his crew with a three-yard “Hooray”. Mr. Francis B. Reeves, Treasurer of the American Red Cross, on behalf of the Red Cross, officially received the relief supplies on the Thelma and Bishop Garland of Philadelphia blessed the ship.
Then Mr. Wanamaker handed a letter to Captain Hendrickson, addressed to Dr. Henry Van Dyke, Minister of the United States in The Hague, Holland: “The steamship Thelma is to carry this to you today … the gifts of the people of Philadelphia and vicinity… The usual papers of the ship will manifest the cargo as of the value of $ 104.000 and it consists wholly of flour, corn meal, beans, canned goods, potatoes in sacks, etc. … articles of food, because of the statement made by the Honorable Brand Whitlock, Minister at Brussels, a few days ago, regarding the destitution among the women and children and old and sick people in Belgium. …
This great old city, that you know so well, the first of the American cities and the first seat of the government of the United States, without neglecting its duties of the poor and suffering in Philadelphia, has risen as it with one heart, to show sympathy and affection, just as the City of Brotherly Love always does, to the world’s sufferers. I may add for your own pleasure that almost enough additional contributions are flowing in to load another ship.”
The Thelma crossed the ocean in three weeks and moored safely on December 3, 1914 with her precious cargo in the Maashaven of Rotterdam. Transhipment started immediately, barges brought the foodstuffs to the intended places via the inland waterways of Holland and Belgium.
“Le XXe siècle” reported in mid-December 1914 about the foodstuffs supplied by the Thelma:
“The steamship “Thelma” has arrived in Rotterdam with 1,740 tons of supplies, destined for the Belgians who stayed in Belgium. The load consists of 94,600 sacks and 100 barrels of flour, 1,600 bags of corn flour, 2,000 bags of beans, 1,600 sacks of rice, 1,200 bags of salt, 500 boxes of corn, 5,000 boxes of potatoes, 1,200 bags of barley, 2,500 bags of peas, 600 boxes of condensed milk, 600 boxes preserved peaches, 1,000 boxes of soda salt, 1,200 boxes of plums, 1,000 bags of sugar and 1,250 bags of oatmeal.”
Meanwhile, the second ship chartered by Wanamaker did indeed cross the ocean with the next cargo of relief supplies: the ORN had departed as the Thanksgiving Ship.
‘Thanksgiving’ Ship ORN
The day before Thanksgiving Day, November 25th, 1914, the steamer ORN left the port of Philadelphia on its way to Rotterdam, as thousands of spectators waved goodbye. The cargo value was $ 173,430, consisting mostly of sacks of flour plus other food items.
The official ceremony to wish the ORN God Speed was attended by many dignitaries. The musical accompaniment was again in hands of The Girard College Band.
Present were Mayor Blankenberg and his Cabinet with the responsible officials; Mr. Wanamaker and company; M. Paul Hagemans, the Belgian Consul General. Special guest was Madame Lalla Vandervelde.
Also present were the committee of publishers and editors of Philadelphia newspapers, the representatives of the Belgian Government, official and unofficial, the ministers who sanctified the undertaking, and the crew of the ship itself.
The clergymen blessing the Thanksgiving Ship were of three different denominations: Dr. Russell H. Conwell of the Baptist Temple; Very Rev. Henry T. Drumgoole, rector of St. Charles’ Seminary, Overbrook; Rev. Joseph Krauskopf, of Temple Keneseth Israel.
The company of dignitaries first had their picture taken upon arrival on the ship. Madame Vandervelde took an active part in photography: she insisted upon being photographed with a hand camera of her own, placing herself between Mr. Wanamaker and Mayor Blankenburg.
Mayor Blankenburg presided at the exercises: “I do not believe that Philadelphia could celebrate a greater or better Thanksgiving than by sending this steamer to Belgium, laden to the very limit with all kinds of provisions for its starving people.”
Dr. Krauskopf spoke in part as follows: “… We are assembled on this eve of our National Thanksgiving Day with our hearts both joyful and sorrowful. We are joyful because we are able to share our bounty with those who are in need of it on the other side of the sea, and we are sorrowful because the need has arisen for them, not because of any Divine dispensation, but because of the sinfulness or the error of man.”
Dr. Conwell formally presented the vessel and her cargo to the Red Cross Society. He said in part: “… it is beautiful that we have an opportunity to send out to the suffering Belgians a division of what we have, and if I understand, the spirit of America aright, we would, if we understand their needs, be willing to divide to the last loaf of bread with the Belgians who so bravely defended their homes and showed to the world a most magnificent example of their bravery and patriotism that has ever been known to the history of man.”
Mr. Paul Hagemans accepted the shipment of relief supplies on behalf of Belgium: “For the second time within two weeks, Philadelphia and her charitable people are sending to the Belgian sufferers a shipload of merchandise. In doing so Philadelphia and her people are setting a magnificent example of human solidarity to thousands of my people who will be saved from famine, for we note by the recent reports that conditions are appalling now…. You cannot imagine, therefore, what a ship like this, with its cargo, means to my countrymen…. I thank you, gentlemen of the press, for your efforts on our behalf; and I thank you citizens of Philadelphia for your generous response to our appeal. God speed the Thanksgiving ship.” 
Mme. Vandervelde herself brought two small flags, one Belgian and one American, which she carried in her hand. Handing the Belgian red, yellow, black to Mr. Wanamaker, Mme. Vandervelde said:
I want to present this flag of Belgium to Mr. Wanamaker in thanks for his most beautiful gift to Belgium. I want to present to him first this Belgian flag. It is a symbol of the heroism and the courage of a small country fighting against most awful odds. It is a symbol also of the distress of millions of her people”.
Turning again to Mr. Wanamaker Mme. Vandervelde concluded: “I want to present you with this American flag, which is always the symbol of what we love in the life of freedom, and liberty and independence. This flag is also at the present moment a symbol of the generosity and the goodwill of thousands of men, women and children, and I have the greatest pleasure in thanking Mr. Wanamaker for all he has done and in presenting him with these two flags.”
As Mr. Wanamaker, taking the two flags, held them high in the air, the band leader made a signal to his men, and the full brasses sounded the opening strains of the American National Anthem. When this had been sung by the thousands of spectators, present on the quay, Father Drumgoole pronounced the benediction.
The guests left the ORN and the vessel pulled out from the dock.
John Wanamaker left the ship as soon as he had cast off her headline – an operation which he insisted on performing himself; he had gone back to his offices in his private automobile. On learning there that the ship had been delayed- her papers at the Custom House not being quite ready – he returned in a delivery automobile from the Wanamaker stores for a last look at the vessel whose departure he had made possible.
On December 18th, 1914, the ORN arrived safely with its valuable cargo in the Maashaven in Rotterdam. The relief supplies were directly transferred to inland vessels and further distributed in Belgium.
Decorated flour sacks from Pennsylvania
Flour sacks transported on the THELMA and ORN would have come from mills in the state of Pennsylvania. My research shows that several dozen of these unprocessed and decorated flour sacks have been preserved in Belgium and the US. It is remarkable that all bags have a small size, the stated content measure is 12¼ LBS (5.5 kg flour) to 24½ LBS (11 kg flour). The usual size of flour sacks was 49 or 98 LBS.
There are flour sacks of:
– Buffalo Flour Milling Co in Lewisburg, brand name Hed-Ov-All in the collections of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, Western Branch, Iowa (HHPLM); Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, California (HIA); War Heritage Institute, Brussels (WHI); Royal Art & History Museum, Brussels (RAHM);
– An unknown mill delivered a sack with brand name Jack Rabbit, shown in the WHI;
– Millbourne Mills in Philadelphia, brand names Rosabel, A-flour, Southern Star in the collections of HHPLM, HIA, WHI, RAHM and several Belgian private collections;
– Miner-Hillard Milling Co. in Wilkes-Barre, brand name M-H 1795 in the collections of WHI and the MoMu Antwerp.
Knowing that these decorated flour sacks left Philadelphia around Thanksgiving Day 1914 adds extra color to my day!
Special thanks to Marcus Eckhardt, curator of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, who made me aware of Thanksgiving Day, the national holiday in the US, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, this year on November 26th. He called it a time to reflect on the past year and all one is thankful for; our long-distance friendship is one of them. We both look forward to meeting in person, when the circumstances allow.
*) Philadelphia Inquirer, editions November 10,11,12,13,17, 21, 24, 26, 1914
 Le XXe siecle: journal d’union et d’action catholique, December 17, 1914
 Hagemans, Paul, unpublished biography, Philadelphia, Penn, undated. Mentioned in Carole Austin’s bibliography, From Aid to Art, San Francisco Folk Art Museum, 1987
**) Addition 8 March 2023:
In Martine Vermandere’s book “Madame Lalla Vandervelde. A very exceptional woman”, she refers to this blog on page 54. Martine Vermandere is a historian and public relations coordinator at Amsab-ISG, Ghent, Belgium.
Vermandere, Martine, Madame Lalla Vandervelde. A very exceptional woman. Ghent, Amsab-ISG, 2023, p. 54