Thanksgiving Ship ORN sailed from Philadelphia

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.

Loading the Thelma in the Philadelphia harbor, children also participated in the relief efforts. The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 10, 1914

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 Thelma’s cargohold full of flour sacks in Philadelphia harbor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1914

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?

Department store magnate and philanthropist John Wanamaker, Philadelphia. Photo: internet

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. *)


Left the loading of the Thelma in the harbor of Philadelphia, center Captain Hendrickson, right Petrus Verhoeven and his family, Belgian refugees in London. Evening Ledger, November 11, 1914

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”.

Food Ship Thelma Off For Belgium, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 13, 1914

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.

Decorated flour sack Rosabel, embroidered in Roulers / Roeselare, 12 Lbs. Coll. HIA. Photo: E. McMillan

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. …


Flour sack ‘A-Flour’, Millbourne Mills. Coll. RAHM, no. 2657, photo: Author

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.”

Advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1914

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, December 17, 1914

“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.”[1]

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.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 1914

‘Thanksgiving’ Ship ORN

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 1914

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.


Lalla Vandervelde. Photo: Mathilde Weil, Philadelphia, 1914. Coll. Library of Congress,

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.

“Thanksgiving Ship Orn Sails”, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 1914

Thanksgiving Day
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.”

Flour sack ‘Southern Star’, Millbourne Mills. Coll. WHI, Photo: Author

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.”

Decorated flour sack Rosabel, 1916, 12 Lbs, embroidered, wooden tray with glass. Photo and coll. Sara Leroy, coll. Bebop

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.” [2]

In the middle from left to right John Wanamaker, Lalla Vandervelde with the Belgian and American flags, Mayor Blankenburg on board the ORN. Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 1914

Madame Vandervelde
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:

Flour sack Rosabel, embroidered. Coll. Frankie van Rossem, photo: Author

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.

Flour sack ‘Jack Rabbit’. Coll. WHI, photo: Author

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.

Flour sack “Hed-Ov-All”, Buffalo Flour Milling Co.; 1914-1915, Anderlecht, embroidered by Hélène Coumans, age 16, Auderghem; through the intervention of Mme Buelens. Coll. HIA, photo: coll. Author

Decorated flour sacks from Pennsylvania 

Flour sack Rosabel, cushion cover, embroidered, “La Belgique Reconnaissante”, ribbon, diam. 25 cm. Coll. HIA, photo: coll. Author

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:

Flour Sack ‘Hed-Ov-All’, Buffalo Flour Milling Co. Coll. RAHM, no. 2658, photo: Author

– 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.

Meelzak ‘M-H 1795’, Miner-Hillard Milling Co., verso. Coll. WHI, foto: auteur
Meelzak ‘M-H 1795’, Miner-Hillard Milling Co., recto. Coll. WHI, foto: auteur
Flour sack “M-H 1795”, Miner-Hillard Milling Co. Apron, embroidered. Coll. MoMu, photo: Europeana

Knowing that these decorated flour sacks left Philadelphia around Thanksgiving Day 1914 adds extra color to my day!

Flour Sack ‘Hed-Ov-All’, Buffalo Flour Milling Co. in a display case in the exhibit hall. Coll. HHPLM, foto: E.McMillan

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. 


Flour sack ‘Hed-Ov-All’, Buffalo Flour Milling Co., embroidery, lace. Coll. HHPLM, nr. 62.4.363. Photo: E.McMillan

*) Philadelphia Inquirer, editions November 10,11,12,13,17, 21, 24, 26, 1914

[1] Le XXe siecle: journal d’union et d’action catholique, December 17, 1914

[2] Hagemans, Paul, unpublished biography, Philadelphia, Penn, undated. Mentioned in Carole Austin’s bibliography, From Aid to Art, San Francisco Folk Art Museum, 1987

The “Ouvroir” of Antwerp (2)

In the Facebook group “Lizerne Trench Art” (LTA), a lively theme night on “WWI flour sacks” was created as a result of the blog “The Ouvroir of Antwerp (1)“.

The Facebook group LTA resides in West Flanders, Belgium; they are a study group, a forum of friends, intended to exchange information/research about all forms of trench art, engraved shell casings, painted military equipment, embroidery, prisoner of war art, woodcarving, etc. from WWI until now.

On Friday evening, October 30th, 2020, I asked the members of the group if they knew about decorated WWI flour sacks that read “Ouvroir d’Anvers”. I immediately received a positive response from Ingo Luypaert.

Tray flour sack “American Commission” / “Ouvroir d’Anvers 1914-1917”, embroidered. Coll. and photo: Ingo Luypaert

Tray ‘Ouvroir d’Anvers’

Bottom of tray with flour sack “American Commission” / “Ouvroir d’Anvers 1914-1917”. Coll. and photo: Ingo Luypaert

As it turns out, Ingo Luypaert owns a beautiful embroidered flour sack “American Commission”.
The flour sack is inlaid in a wooden tray covered with glass.
The embroidery shows the Belgian coat of arms with the standing lion, above it a golden crown.

The crowned coat of arms of Belgium, arabesques and text “Ouvroir d’Anvers”. Coll. and photo: Ingo Luypaert
Detail embroidered arabesque in red, yellow, black. Coll. and photo: Ingo Luypaert

The heraldry is surrounded by “arabesques”: rhythmic patterns, repetitive movement lines, executed in the embroidery as an elegant pleated ribbon in the colors red, yellow, black with the text “Ouvroir d’Anvers 1914-1917” underneath. The silk threads make the embroidery shine.


<< Exhibition of flour sacks >>

The tray may have been exhibited and purchased in March 1916 to contribute to charity. Two newspapers published outside Belgium reported on an exhibition in Antwerp in the halls of the Harmonie Maatschappij, the building where the Ouvroir was located.

Summer Hall of the Société Royale d’Harmonie, Antwerp, postcard. Photo: internet

<<Exhibition of “flour sacks” >>.

De stem uit België (The voice from Belgium), March 31, 1916

In Antwerp and Brussels, exhibitions were set up for “flour sacks” for a few days.
These original exhibitions are the result of the intention of the Belgian women who for some time now have embellished with embroidery some of the sacks in which the flour, delivered by the American relief organizations, arrives in occupied Belgium.
Among the most successful and most admired decorations were noted: the Belgian and American banners surrounded by ornate arabesques; …


“De Harmonie”, Antwerp, postcard. Photo: internet

The Germans inspected the rooms of the Harmonie Maatschappij, obviously uncomfortable with the fact that the starvation of Belgium under German rule and the protective actions of a neutral country should become a matter of public disclosure. They apply “censorship” to the sacks and ordered several ones they deemed too patriotic to be removed.”
(De stem uit België (The voice from Belgium), March 31, 1916; De Belgische standaard (The Belgian standard), April 8, 1916)

Detail embroidered arabesque in red, yellow, black; 1917. Coll. and photo: Ingo Luypaert

My thanks go to the Lizerne Trench Art-Facebook group, in particular to Ingo Luypaert.
Through his beautiful embroidered flour sack “American Commission”, the work of the girls and women in the Ouvroir of Antwerp during the occupation of 14-18 came back to life.

I look forward to the discovery of more decorated flour sacks with the text ‘Ouvroir d’Anvers’!


Recommended reading:
* My article De weldaad van de meelzak/Flour sacks. The art of charity” has been published in the 2020 Yearbook of the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres.
You’ll find the article in Dutch: p. 4-25; in English: p. 123-131.

* Marc Dejonckheere interviewed me for VIFF Magazine, magazine of The Friends of the In Flanders Fields Museum; The emotions of the flour sack” was published in September 2019.
You can read the article here.


The “Ouvroir” of Antwerp (1) – English

The “Ouvroir” of Antwerp employed thousands of girls and women during the occupation of Belgium. Clothing was made and altered, shoes were repaired and flour sacks were embroidered there.

The Ouvroir of Antwerp, iconic overview photo from the gallery, 1915. Photo: “War Bread”

The meaning of an “ouvroir” is: “Lieu réservé aux ouvrages de couture, de broderie…, dans une communauté”; translated: “Place for sewing, embroidery …, in a community”. In a historical context, I would call it a “communal sewing workshop”.

The history of the Ouvroir of Antwerp has become familiar to me through three primary sources: one Belgian and two American.

– “Heures de Détresse” by Edmond Picard, the Belgian primary source shows some photos of the Ouvroir.[2]
– “War Bread” by Edward Eyre Hunt commemorates the Ouvroir of this American delegate of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) in the province of Antwerp. He was a young journalist and writer; he worked in Antwerp from December 1914 to October 1915.[3]
– “Women of Belgium” by Charlotte Kellogg, née Hoffman (Grand Island, Nebraska, 1874 – California 08.05.1960). She was also a CRB delegate – unique as the only woman – and stayed in Belgium between July and November 1916. As a writer and activist, she committed herself to the good cause of Belgian women.[4]

Edward Hunt, War Bread
In the autumn of 1914, three women took the initiative to set up a clothing workshop to provide assistance to residents of the city of Antwerp.

  • Laure de Montigny-de Wael (Antwerp 29.11.1869 – Ixelles, Brussels 09.07.1926)
  • Anna Osterrieth-Lippens (Ghent 01.11.1877 – Brussels 14.09.1957)
  • Countess Irène van de Werve de Vorsselaer-Kervyn d’Oud Mooreghem (Ghent 17.12.1857 – Antwerp 21.04.1938)

They headed a committee of ladies who, I assume, had experience in the organization of charities and workhouses. Even before the war, there were numerous private initiatives offering employment and education to young women and assistance to needy people. The committee is said to have bought up all the piece goods it could find in the city and commissioned the Folies Bergères theater to employ hundreds of young women to make and repair clothes.

Rockefeller Foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation and the CRB worked together on the relief efforts. Belgian Relief Bulletin, December 5, 1914. Coll. Brussels City Archives. Photo: author

The American Rockefeller Foundation collected clothing in the US and shipped it via the port of Rotterdam to Belgium. Canada also provided clothing transports.
Citation from ‘War Bread’: ‘Before January first, 1915, the Rockefeller Foundation contributed almost a million dollars to the work of Belgian relief, and established a station in Rotterdam called the Rockefeller Foundation War Relief Commission, to assist the Commission for Relief in Belgium. This station had charge of the sorting and shipping of clothes sent from America for Belgium.
We never had enough to supply them. It was only when the generous gifts of clothing began to come from America through the Rockefeller Foundation War Relief Commission, that the situation improved at all.”

The Ouvroir was under the protection of the CRB and received a monthly subsidy of 50,000 francs from the city of Antwerp until the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CNSA) took over financing.

International exhibition “d’Art Culinaire & d’Alimentation” in 1899, Société Royale d’Harmonie, Antwerp. Photo: internet

The Ouvroir moved to larger premises: the “Summer Hall” or “Banquet Hall”  of the Société Royale d’Harmonie on Mechelsesteenweg.[5]
The architect Pieter Dens designed the building, completed in 1846. The location had housed concerts, exhibitions and fairs.

The Banquet Hall, Société Royale d’Harmonie, Antwerp, 1906, postcard. Photo: internet

The Ouvroir in Banquet Hall “Harmonie”

Edward Eyre Hunt, photo: “WWI Crusaders”, Jeffrey Miller

Hunt paints this picture of the organization of the Ouvroir: ‘The stage of the Antwerp Harmonie was piled with boxes of goods. Galleries and pit were spread with rows of sewing machines and work tables, and the cloak room was transformed into a steam and sulphur disinfecting bath, where all materials, new and old, were taken apart and thoroughly cleansed. Nine hundred girls and young women worked under supervision in the warm, well-lighted hall, while about three thousand older women were given sewing to do at home.

A group of cobblers in the hall made and repaired shoes. All these workers were paid. From the central workshop, made goods and unmade materials were sent throughout the Province; the latter to sewing circles in the villages and towns.”

Ouvroir of Antwerp, ground floor, 1915. Photo: “Heures de Détresse”
Charlotte Kellogg, née Hoffman. Photo: internet

Charlotte Kellogg: Women of Belgium
Charlotte Kellogg went to visit the workroom.
“We looked on a sea of golden and brown heads bending over sewing tables. Noble women had rescued them from the wreckage of war—within the shelter of this music-hall they were working for their lives… 1200 girls were preparing the sewing and embroidery materials for 3,300 others working at home. In other words, this was one of the blessed ouvroirs or workrooms of Belgium.
Here the whole attitude toward the clothing is from the point of view, not of the protection it gives, but of the employment it offers. Without this employment, without the daily devotion of the wonderful women who have built up this astonishing organization…. Of course, there is always dire need for the finished garments. They are turned over as fast as they can be to the various other committees that care for the destitute. Between February 1915, and May 1916, articles valued at over 2,000,000 francs were given out in this way through this ouvroir alone.”

Festive photo of full flour sacks from mills in the US and Canada. Photo: “Heures de Détresse”

Transformation of flour sacks
Kellogg did not mention whether flour sacks were transformed into clothing in the Ouvroir, probably not. However, some of the women were involved in embroidery!

The embroidery of the flour sacks in the Ouvroir caught Kellogg’s attention:

Flour sack “ABC”, scenic embroidery, design Piet van Engelen. Dedicated to Mr. Herbert Hoover, Ouvroir d’Anvers. Coll. and photo: HHPLM nr. 62.4.447

“In one whole section the girls do nothing but embroider our American flour sacks. Artists draw designs to represent the gratitude of Belgium to the United States. The one on the easel as we passed through, represented the lion and the cock of Belgium guarding the crown of the king, while the sun—-the great American eagle rises in the East. The sacks that are not sent to America as gifts are sold in Belgium as souvenirs”

The workers’ reward was training in sewing and pattern design; lessons in history, geography, literature, writing and special attention to hygiene, plus a payment of 3 francs per week. Kellogg exulted: “These things are splendid, and with the three francs a week wages, spell self-respect, courage, progress all along the line. The committee has always been able to secure the money for the wages

Ouvroir of Antwerp, gallery, 1915. Photo: “Heures de Détresse”

Countess Irène van de Werve de Vorsselaer-Kervyn d’Oud Mooreghem
Last week I received a message from one of the great-grandsons of Countess Irène van de Werve de Vorsselaer-Kervyn d’Oud Mooreghem, a committee member of the Ouvroir. I had previously come into contact with Mr. van de Werve de Vorsselaer in my research into the maiden name of “Comtesse van de Werve de Vorsselaer” and her involvement in charitable committees. His great-grandmother turned out to have been very active in charity works during the war.

Countess Léon van de Werve de Vorsselaer, née Irène Kervyn d’Oud Mooreghem. Photo: coll. van de Werve de Vorsselaer

“The Countess van de Werve de Vorsselaer in question was born Irène Kervyn d’Oud Mooreghem. She married Count Léon van de Werve de Vorsselaer (1851-1920) on April 23, 1877 in Mariakerke. They had two sons.
She was a member of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, of the Association des Mères Chrétiennes and of L’Hospitalité de Notre-Dame de Lourdes. She was also a Knight of the Order of Leopold II with a silver star and was awarded the Commemorative Medal of the 1914-1918 War (France) and the Victory Medal. She was presented these awards due to her boundless dedication to the war wounded: she had comforted them, eased their pain and cared for them in the halls of the Antwerp Zoo, which for the occasion had been transformed into an improvised military hospital.” [6]

The message I just received from Mr. van de Werve de Vorsselaer contained a surprise. He had talked to his wife about our conversations and she remembered that his mother had given her some decorated flour sacks. To his surprise, three embroidered flour sacks had emerged, the existence of which had been unfamiliar to him.
He was so kind as to send sent me photos of the embroideries.

Embroidered flour sack ‘Ouvroir d’Anvers’

‘“Ouvroir d’Anvers. Années de Guerre 1914-1916”. Flour sack detail in white embroidery techniques. Coll. and photo: van de Werve de Vorsselaer

Examination of the photos made me jump for joy: one of them was embroidered in white on white: “Ouvroir d’Anvers. Années de Guerre 1914-1916 “. The original printing of the flour sack is missing, but in size it is the canvas of half a flour sack. Undisputedly a craft that originated at the Ouvroir of Antwerp!

“Flour sack”, tablecloth in white embroidery technique, English embroidery, “Ouvroir d’Anvers. Années de Guerre 1914-1916”. Coll. and photo: van de Werve de Vorsselaer

It is a small tablecloth with floral motifs, decorated with scalloped edges throughout, executed in white embroidery techniques, the style resembles English embroidery.

Seeing as one flour sack had originated at the Ouvroir, I assume that the other two embroideries were also created there. These flour sacks have been transformed into cushion covers.

Quaker City Flour Mills Co., Philadelphia

Flour sack “Quaker City Flour Mills Co., Philadelphia”, embroidered; Ouvroir of Antwerp. Coll. and photo: van de Werve de Vorsselaer

The origin of one flour sack is the “Quaker City Flour Mills Co., Philadelphia”, from the state Pennsylvania. The characters of the original print are embroidered in the colors red, yellow, black and red, white, blue. Some small flags have been added as patriotic decoration, as well as the years 1914-1915-1916-1917. The result is a colorful cushion cover.

American Commission

Detail flour sack “American Commission”, white embroidery technique, Italian embroidery; Ouvroir of Antwerp. Coll. and photo: van de Werve de Vorsselaer
Original printing “American Commission”. Coll. Hollaert. Photo: author

One flour sack originates from the “American Commission”. The original print was blue, but that color has faded. This decorated sack also features the white embroidery techniques; it looks like Italian embroidery. The contours of the characters are embroidered with white yarns. Furthermore, the flour sack has been artfully decorated with leaves and flowers.


Mr. van de Werve de Vorsselaer stated in his explanation accompanying the photos of the flour sacks that he knew of neither the existence nor the background of their collection of decorated flour sacks. He thanked me with: “Grâce à vous, mes enfants et petits-enfants sauront leur provenance.” (“Thanks to you, my children and grandchildren will know their origins.”)

Flour sack “American Commission”, white embroidery technique, Italian embroidery. Ouvroir of Antwerp; cushion cover. Coll. and photo: van de Werve de Vorsselaer

In turn, I would like to thank Mr. and Mrs. van de Werve de Vorsselaer. My research questions: who embroidered the flour sacks, where did they embroider them, what was their motivation, have received meaningful answers. Thanks to the collection of three embroidered flour sacks, the work of great-grandmother van de Werve de Vorsselaer and of thousands of other girls and women in the Ouvroir of Antwerp came back to life.

For the sequel see the next blog: The “Ouvroir” of Antwerp (2)


[1] My thanks go to
– Mr. and Mrs. van de Werve de Vorsselaer for their information and the photos of the decorated flour sacks;
– Hubert Bovens in Wilsele for providing biographical data;
Majo van der Woude of Tree of Needlework in Utrecht for her advice on the various embroidery techniques.

[2] Picard, Edmond, Heures de Détresse. L’Oeuvre du Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation et de la Commission for Relief in Belgium. Belgique 1914 – 1915. Bruxelles: CNSA, L’ Imprimerie J -E Goossens SA, 1915

[3] Hunt, Edward E., War Bread. A Personal Narrative of the War and Relief in Belgium. New York: Henry Holt & Company 1916

[4] Kellogg, Charlotte, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy in Triumph. New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 4th edition, 1917

Banquet Hall of the Société Royale de l’Harmonie, Antwerp, postcard. Photo: internet

5] Hunt confused two locations of the Société Royale de l’Harmonie in “War Bread”: the Summer or Banquet Hall on Mechelsesteenweg in the Harmonie Park, next to the current King Albert Park, and the theater / concert hall in the city center on the Arenbergstraat / Rue d’Arenberg. The Ouvroir was located on Mechelsesteenweg. (Appendix XXIX, The Clothing Workshop, p. 357).

Count Léon van de Werve de Vorsselaer. Photo: The chant of paradise. The Antwerp Zoo: 150 years of history

[6] The rooms of the ZOO were made available to the Red Cross in 1914.
Count Léon van de Werve de Vorsselaer had been involved in the management of the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp since 1902 as administrator. In 1919 he became chairman of the board, but died unexpectedly in 1920. It appears both spouses, like many prominent and noble families, had a close relationship with the famous Antwerp Zoo. Baetens, Roland, The chant of paradise. The Antwerp Zoo: 150 years of history. Tielt: Lannoo, 1993

Flour sack trip from Urbana to Overijse

For my flour sack trip to the Flemish Brabant town of Overijse I took the digital highway. The journey went via the American city of Urbana in Ohio. Later I made a detour through West-Branch, Iowa. Please note: The old spelling of Overijse is “Overijssche”.

“Grateful schoolchildren in Overijssche”, around 1915/1916. In the background some flour sacks can be seen hanging.Photo: postcard commemoration of the Great War 1914-2014. De Beierij vzw.
Diplomat Brand Whitlock and his wife Ella Brainerd-Whitlock with her dog. Photo: Library of Congress

Urbana, Ohio
The Champaign County Historical Society Museum (CCHSM) in Urbana preserves a collection of objects obtained through the couple Brand Whitlock (Urbana, Ohio 04.03.1869 – Cannes, France 24.05.1934) and Ella Brainerd-Whitlock (Springfield, Ill. 25.09.1876 – Brewster, NY 11.07.1942). The diplomat Brand Whitlock was an American minister plenipotentiary in Belgium with headquarters in Brussels during WWI; he was patron of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and the Belgian National Relief Committee (CNSA).
In gratitude for their work in Belgium the couple received many gifts, including decorated flour sacks.

Whitlock collection
All textile objects in CCHSM’s Whitlock collection have been described online, but photos are usually missing. Several descriptions made me suspect that the objects could be decorated flour sacks, two of which are specifically from the municipality of Overijse. When asked, Cheryl Ogden, director of the museum, was eager to help. Megan, the museum’s intern, sent me the photos.[1]

Embroidered flour sack “A son Excellence M. Brand Whitlock”, nr. 3999 in the CCHSM collection. Photo: CCHSM

“Nr. 3999:
32″ x 18” pillow top banner

The banner has the red, yellow, black banner of the Belgian flag. On the lower right hand there is tied an American Flag. The top is composed of a center design where one knight speaks to another on horseback. The knight has on a blue cape. Under them is a blue and yellow shield with a lion on it. There is a wheat design on the cloth. It says in red on it “A Son Excellence/ Brand Whtilock/ 1914/ Souvenir de Reconnaissance/ 1915 La commune d’ Overyssyche.” There are also stamps from its original use on it.”


Embroidered flour sack “Aux généreux Etats-Unis”, nr. 4002 in the CCHSM-collection. Photo: CCHSM

“Nr. 4002:
18″ x 30” embroidered pillowcase.

There is a card sewn into the front. It has a red, black, and yellow ribbon threaded through it. 
The Pillowcase is embroidered with a yellow basket that has red, yellow, balck flowers. The flowers curve down and around the side of the case. Inside the curve are American and Belgian flags. They are tied together by a yellow ribbon. The words Ausc generusc/ etats-unis/ souvenir de reconnaissance/ 1914 (-) 1915/ La commune d’ Fueryssche (?)/ Belgique (?).

Stamp Relief Committee Overijse. Coll. and photo CCHSM

The case manufacturer’s stamp is on the bottom.”

The flour sacks do not show any original prints referring to mills or American or Canadian relief organizations. The presentation, dimensions and double fabric of the objects seem to confirm that these are embroidered flour sacks. “La Commune d’Overijssche” was, according to the text, the initiator of both embroidered sacks; it dedicated one flour sack to Mr. Brand Whitlock, the other to the generous United States.

‘A son Excellence M. Brand Whitlock’, nr. 3999

Embroidered flour sack “A son Excellence M. Brand Whitlock. La Commune d’Overijssche”, 1915. Coll. and photo CCHSM nr. 3999
Detail embroidery. Coll. and photo CCHSM

Embroidered text: A son Excellence Mr. Brand Whitlock. Souvenir de reconnaissance 1914-1915. La commune d’ Overijssche.
Stamp: Comité local de Secours et d’Alimentation Overijssche (Brabant).
The embroiderer used red thread for the text.

Detail embroidery. Coll. and photo CCHSM

Garlands of golden grain stalks, white daisies, blue cornflowers and green ivy leaves form a wreath around the coat of arms of Overijse.


Detail with the coat of arms of Overijse. Coll. and photo CCHSM

The official coat of arms of Overijse dates from 1818: “In glaze a Saint Martin on horseback, sharing his cloak with a poor man, standing on a ground, all made of gold; in the tip a shield of glaze with a crossbar, accompanied in the shield head by three lilies and in the shield foot of a lion, all of gold.” In the embroidery, the cloak of Saint Martin is blue, the rest gold.

Stamp of Overijse. Coll. and photo CCHSM

Saint Martin on horseback appears again in the official stamp, in black ink, of the municipality of Overijssche on the flour sack. The edges are finished with ribbon in the colors red, yellow, black; the top edge is finished with needlework.

‘Aux généreux Etats-Unis’, nr. 4002

Embroidered flour sack “Aux généreux Etats-Unis. La Commune d’Overijssche”, 1915. Embroiderer Marie Brankaer. Coll. and photo CCHSM nr. 4002
Detail embroidery. Coll. and photo CCHSM

Embroidered text: Aux généreux Etats-Unis 1914-1915. La commune d’Overijssche, Belgique.
Stamp: Comité local de Secours et d’Alimentation Overijssche (Brabant).


Card with the name of the embroiderer Marie Brankaer, 1915. Coll. and photo CCHSM

Card with text: Mlle. Marie Brankaer, Malaise-sous-Overijssche, Brabant.
Added card by CCHSM: “Pillowcase Embroidered. Souvenir de Reconnaissance. Mrs. Brand Whitlock.”


Detail embroidery. Coll. and photo CCHSM

Marie Brankaer used golden yellow and red threads to embroider garlands of flowers, a basket with flowers; the patriotic elements are the Belgian and American flags, the poles cross one another and are connected with a strong golden-yellow bow. The top edge is finished with needlework.


Overijse, Flemish Brabant
I wondered: are the two flour sacks in the Whitlock collection known amongst those in Overijse, Belgium? To find the answer I turned to the local Historical Society De Beierij van IJse. They were not aware of the existence of these flour sacks. Piet Van San, vice-president of De Beierij van IJse however, provided me with an interesting article and beautiful photos.
In 2014, the magazine Zoniën paid attention to the needs of occupied Belgium. Djamila Timmermans wrote the article: “Honger, voedsel en hulp in Overijse, WO I” (Hunger, food and relief in Overijse, WWI). [2]  In 1915, the photographer Louis Rigaux (1887-1954) took a series of photos of the local Relief Committee and the activities. The photos have been kept in the archives of Jean and Isabelle Rigaux, they are included as illustrations in the Zoniën article.

The local Relief Committee “Overijssche”, 1915. Portrait with two decorated flour sacks. Photo: Louis Rigaux, coll. J&I Rigaux
Relief Committee Overijssche, 1915. Two decorated flour sacks “Chicago’s Flour Gift”, B.A. Eckhart Milling Co., Chicago, Illinois and “Pride of Niagara”, Thompson Milling Co. Lockport, New York. Coll. unknown. Detail photo: Louis Rigaux, coll. J&I Rigaux

The photo on the cover of Zoniën 2014-2 shows the local relief committee with two decorated flour sacks. The embroidery of garlands of corn stalks, daisies, cornflowers and ivy leaf is the same as the embroidery on the CCHSM flour sack No. 3999.

By whom and where the flour sacks in Overijse were embroidered is as of yet unknown. Perhaps the embroiderer’s name “Mlle. Marie Brankaer from Malaise-sous-Overijssche” could lead to further information.

Photos of Louis Rigaux

Weighing the flour for further distribution. Overijse Municipal School.  Coll. J&I Rigaux, Photo: Louis Rigaux
Food distribution by the Overijse Relief Committee. Coll. J&I Rigaux, photo: Louis Rigaux
Queue for the Municipal Warehouse or ‘American Shop’, Justus Lipsiusplein, Overijse. Coll. J&I Rigaux, photo: Louis Rigaux
Members of the Overijse Relief Committee lined up in front of a wall full of emptied flour sacks with brand names of American mills and relief organizations. Coll. J&I Rigaux, photo: Louis Rigaux

Piet Van San drew my attention to two more decorated flour sacks: “We have two more elaborately crafted flour sacks (1915) in Overijse – of exceptional quality. One is kept in my wife’s family, another copy in the archives of the Historical Society De Beierij of which I am the vice-president.” As soon as I have scans of photos of these flour sacks, I will post them to this blog.

Through my research into decorated WWI flour sacks, I made an adventurous sack trip from Urbana to Overijse on the digital highway and met inspiring people.

Addition November 8, 2020
During another flour sack trip I took a short detour through West Branch, Iowa. The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum (HHPLM) appears to have a ‘Overijssche-Maleizen’ (‘Malaise-sous-Overijssche’) flour sack in its collection. A decorated flour sack from the village where embroiderer Marie Brankaer lived!

Decorated flour sack ‘Overijssche-Maleizen’, embroidered and painted, 1915. Coll. HHPLM nr. 62.4.385

‘Der Belgian Dank’, ‘Liefderijk Amerika’ (Thanks from Belgium, Loving America) is painted on the sack. The embroidered garland of flowers and stalks of grain are comparable to the ones on the other Overijssche sacks. Here too the top edge is finished with open stitching.


My sincere thanks go to
– Cheryl Ogden and Megan of the Champaign County Historical Society Museum;
– Piet Van San of the Historical Society De Beierij van IJse.


[1] Champaign County Historical Society owns several WWI flour sacks in its Brand Whitlock collection. How many is currently under investigation, though there appear to be at least seven pieces. Megan took and sent overview photos and detailed photos of these seven flour sacks.

[2] Timmermans, Djamila, Honger, voedsel en hulp in Overijse, WO I. Overijse: Zoniën, quarterly magazine Historical Society De Beierij van IJse vzw, 2014-2, p. 47-75.
Djamila Timmermans wrote the article “Milddadigheid” van de stad Portland (Generosity of the city of Portland), Oregon, in the same issue, focusing on the unveiling of a memorial stone in Overijse in 1930: “the memorial stone, placed at the Municipal School of ‘t Center, in gratitude to the generosity of the city of Portland (Oregon) America, during the war 1914-1918”.


Flour sacks. The art of charity

My article ” Flour sacks. The art of charity” has been published in the 2020 Yearbook of the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres!

English translation in the Yearbook 2020 In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

In the summer of 2019, I conducted research into the decorated WWI flour sacks in the museum’s collection*). The museum possesses 23 original flour sacks, eight of those have been included in Flanders’ List of Masterpieces as unique heritage items.

In my article, I report in word and image on my discoveries and give historical context to the Ypres collection of flour sacks. The following topics are discussed: the supply of food to Belgium; the US charities with a graph of contributions by state; Madame Lalla Vandervelde, her journey through America and successful appeal for aid to the Belgians; examples of the Belgian charities with an infographic showing dozens of sales exhibitions of flour sacks held between 1915-1925; girls’ education in vocational schools with unique photos of their lessons; German censorship on decorated flour sacks.

My conclusion is: decorated flour sacks are the symbol of the many charities run and supported by Belgian women and girls during the occupation, besides the symbol of food aid and gratitude.

The IFFM Yearbook 2020 is beautifully designed by Manu Veracx. The original Dutch article with 17 color and 7 black and white illustrations, is fully translated in English by Marc Hutsebaut; it covers 9 pages.

You can order the IFFM Yearbook 2020 here.

Collection flour sacks In Flanders Fields Museum. Artistic photo collage: Annelien van Kempen, April 2020. IFFM Yearbook 2020

*) Marc Dejonckheere interviewed me for VIFF Magazine, magazine of The Friends of the In Flanders Fields Museum; “The emotions of the flour sack” was published in September 2019.

One million bags of flour from Canada

I spent this past May reading and browsing the archive of The British Newspaper Archive. In collaboration with The British Library, this platform provides access to the largest online collection of British and Irish historical newspapers. The archive also contains some Canadian newspapers.

“Million bags of flour from Canada”
You can imagine my surprise when I came across a collection of English and Irish articles in August 1914 with the headline: “MILLION BAGS OF FLOUR FROM CANADA”.
A million bags of flour from Canada?!

The Scotsman, August 10th, 1914

The newspapers reported on the Canadian government’s donation to the people of the United Kingdom during the first weeks of the war.

“The Board of Trade announces that the following telegraph communicatons have passed between the Duke of Connaught, Governor-General of Canada, and the Secretary for the Colonies: “I am desired by my Government to inform you that the people of Canada, through their Government desire to offer one million bags of flour of ninety-eight pounds each as a gift to the people of the United Kingdom, to be placed at the disposal of His Majesty’s Government, and to be used for such purposes as they may deem expedient. This size is most convenient for transportation. The first shipment will be sent in about ten days, and the balance as soon as possible afterwards. – ARTHUR.”
Received 6.40 A.M., 7th August.
Reply sent:
12.45 P.M. 7th August.
Your telegram, 6th August. His Majesty’s Government accept on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom with deep gratitude the splendid and welcome gift of flour from Canada, which will be of the greatest use in this country for the steadying of prices and the relief of distress. We can never forget the promptitude and generosity of this gift and the patriotism from which it springs. – HARCOURT[i]

The first bags of flour were readied in the Canadian mills on August 20th. On September 9th, 1914, 50,000 bags of flour had already arrived in Liverpool. Each bag was printed in color with large letters “FLOUR. CANADA’S GIFTʼ.

The first load of 50,000 bags of flour has arrived in Liverpool on an “Allan Liner” and is stored in a warehouse. The Daily Citizen, September 14th, 1914

The background of the impressive donation turned out to be considerations of financial nature. “In the work of financing the exports of grain and flour from Canada, the arrangement completed by the Bank of England, under which the Canadian Minister of Finance has become the depository of important gold reserves which otherwise would have been shipped across to England, is of high importance, as the large sums paid into the Treasury at the Canadian capital can be paid out to exporters of produce from the Dominion. The effect of this will be to relieve the financial tension considerably.” [ii] 

Another message explained, in my words, the dual purpose of controlling bread prices and the ability to come to the aid of the poor.
What use is to be made of Canada’s Gift is under the consideration of the Government, but it is thought it will be used for the dual purpose of easing the market and relieving distress.”[iii]

Steamer Riversdale arrived in Cardiff loaded with “Canada’s Gift of Flour” on October 5th, 1914. Still from film clip “Riversdale”, Ireland’s share in Canada’s Gift of Flour. Archive: Reuters, October 19th, 1914

The bags of flour were mainly stored in the ports of London and Liverpool.

Steamer Riversdale arrived in Cardiff loaded with a portion of the Canadian gift of flour to Great Britian. Dublin Daily Express, October 6th, 1914

But the ports of Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Dublin and Belfast also had flour from the Canadian donation in storage. The Port Authorities had undertaken to warehouse the gift of flour as long as necessary without charge. The Food supply management was entrusted to the Local Government Board, which was to establish a method for distributing flour to the population; it turned out to be an issue that had not yet been decided. The total value of the donation was estimated at half a million pounds sterling.

Film footage of the unloading of bags of flour in the British port of Cardiff has been preserved in the historical Reuters collection and is available online at “British Pathé”. The steamship Riversdale from Sunderland came from Montreal, Canada, and docked in Cardiff in October 1914. The title of the 30-seconds film clip is “Ireland’s share in Canada’s Gift of Flour.”

Unloading of flour bags from steamer Riversdale in Cardiff. Still from film clip ‘Riversdale’, Ireland’s share in Canada’s Gift of Flour. Archive: Reuters, October 19th, 1914

“Canada’s magnificent gift to this country of 1,000,000 bags of flour will come in the main to London and Liverpool. Its care will be taken over by the Relief Committee of the Local Government Board and the Regulation of Food Prices Committee of the Board of Trade. At present no decision has been reached as to the exact method by which the gift is to be utilized. The approximate value of the flour at wholesale prices is £ 500,000. The Port of London Authority and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board have undertaken to warehouse it as long as necessary without charge.”[iv]

Unloading of flour bags from steamer Riversdale, Cardiff. Still from film clip ‘Riversdale’, Ireland’s share in Canada’s Gift of Flour. Archive: Reuters, October 19th, 1914

Donations from the Canadian provinces
Canada provided more gifts. The Canadian provinces donated food and fuel. Alberta donated 500,000 bushels of oats, Quebec, the French-speaking province, 4,000,000 lbs of locally made cheese. Nova Scotia donated 100,000 tons of coal. British Columbia contributed with 25,000 cases of canned salmon and New Brunswick 100,000 bushels of potatoes. Ontario’s gift was £ 100,000 to be spent with them by the British government as needed.[v]

Manitoba’s Gift

Souvenir Flour Sack “Manitoba’s War Gift”. Archives of Manitoba, Ethel Hart Collection, Winnipeg, Canada

The province of Manitoba donated flour to the Motherland: “MANITOBA’S GIFT. The War Press Bureau announce that the Colonial Office has accepted an offer of flour from Manitoba.“[vi]

“The Government of Manitoba has awarded the contracts for its gift of flour to all the principal mills at a cost of 2 dollars 90 cents and lower. The flour is the finest the province produces and will be rigidly inspected. It will be ready by October 20th. – Press Association War Special[vii]


“Bags are sold for 5 shillings each”
My surprise at the one million bags of flour from Canada increased as I read a letter from a housewife in Dundee, Scotland. Immediately after the first report of the donation of one million bags of flour to the United Kingdom, she had an idea for the use of the empty flour bags. She wrote a letter to the local newspaper on August 25th.

“Flour Bag Souvenirs”, suggestion of a Dundee Housewife, Scotland. The Courier, August 28th, 1914

“Every housewife knows what a great many useful things can be made out of flour bags, and one of the gift bags would be a lasting souvenir of this great war…” DUNDEE HOUSEWIFE
August 25, 1914”[viii]

The suggestion has to have been embraced with enthusiasm and broad support, because from mid-September on, the newspapers published a stream of calls to subscribe to the sale of flour bags. The proceeds went to charity.

The sacks are all marked ‘FLOUR. CANADA’S GIFT’. Photo: The Manchester Guardian History of the War Vol. III-1915. London, John Heywood Ltd., 1915 

Sacks to be Sold at 5/- Each.
Canada is making a splendid gift of flour to the Mother Country. It has been decided that the sacks, when empty, shall be sold as souvenirs at 5s. each. Two-thirds of this sum will be devoted to the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund (N.R.F.) and one-third to the Belgian Refugees Fund (B.R.F.). The sacks are all marked ‘Canada’s Gift.’
Applications for the sacks as souvenirs, accompanied by a remittance of 5s. should be sent to the National Relief Fund. Applications will be dealt with in strict rotation.[ix]

Sales offer and suggestions how to use the emptied Canadian flour sacks. Evening Despatch, October 31st, 1914

Next an informative article appeared about the sale of the empty flour sacks. Its headline was “CANADA’S GIFT SACKS. HOW TO BUY THEM AND HOW TO USE THEM.“[x]
For interested parties, 10,000 empty flour sacks became available starting December 9th, 1914. The specification of the sacks was as follows: 98 lbs sacks, made of gray calico (sturdy fabric of unbleached cotton). Dimensions were 36 inches high and 18 inches wide, or cut open, 36 inches wide. One side of the sack read in colored large print letters “FLOUR. CANADA’S GIFT.”

Lovers of the flour bags made suggestions for use. The material could be embroidered and cushion covers could be made. In particular, it was mentioned that Red Cross hospitals could use it to make their cushion covers, and even mattress covers for cots. Some wanted to hang a flour sack at their political club, another club or in schools. The suggestion was to make a copy available to all museums. With the approaching Christmas season, the idea arose to designate the bags as “Christmas gift bags”. And a very ingenious housewife planned to cut up her flour sack to prepare her Christmas puddings.

In December, a Canadian newspaper concluded with the headline “Selling the Sacks. How Canada Achieved a Double Purpose.”: “Thus, Canada has benefited the Motherland two-fold by her generous contribution. Not only has she helped to feed England, but she has also, by this gift, helped to swell those two very deserving funds (the National Relief Fund and the Belgian Relief Fund) now so prominently before the public.”[xi]


Chester Chronicle, December 26th,  1914

On December 26th, 1914, the shipment of empty flour bags to the buyers had started. The marking of each bag was: “N.R.F., B.R.F., 1914” as proof that the proceeds from the sale were destined for the National Relief Fund and the Belgian Relief Fund.[xii]

Within a month, two photos of a decorated Canadian flour sack appeared in Sheffield newspapers.

Decorated Canadian flour sack transformed into a cushion by a lady in Sheffield. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, January 23rd, 1915

The first picture showed a flour sack transformed into a cushion with a pen drawing of a dog, a bulldog, with a British flag in its mouth. The dog is sitting on a piece of paper, next to it is written “Scrap of Paper”. The canvas bears the stamp “NRF, BRF, 1914”. A lady from Sheffield made the pillow.[xiii]

Decorated Canadian flour sack transformed into a cushion by a lady in Sheffield. The Sheffield Daily Independent, January 23rd, 1915

The second photo showed a pillow that read “FLOUR. CANADAʼS GIFT.” It was also decorated with a pen drawing, now with flowers.[xiv]
Both photos may have been of one and the same cushion, front and back, respectively. The same corded edge and the two tassels on the corners would suggest this to be the case.

Sheffield Independent, January 16, 1915

January 25th, 1915 an auction was held for the benefit of the Belgian Refugees Fund during the Bohemian Concert at the Royal Victoria Hotel. The decorated flour sack was to be sold there and the proceeds benefited the local Belgian refugees.


Canada’s Gift to Belgium: More Sack Souvenirs
The British newspapers provided me with a third surprise.
I kept reading the Sheffield newspapers and saw an article about aid from Canada for the Belgian refugees in England.
Canada’s Gift for Belgians.
Sheffield’s share of the gift of flour, potatoes, and cheese which Canada has sent for the Belgian refugees who have settled in England, is being distributed to the various areas and bases at which the refugees are residing, and will from these different centres be divided among the individual recipients.”[xv]

Immediately afterwards, empty Canadian flour sacks were once again in the spotlight, in particular the specimens that had been donated filled with flour to the Belgian refugees.

Canadese Sack Souvenirs. Manchester Evening News, January 25th, 1915

“The sacks containing the flour sent by Canada as a gift to the Belgians are attracting considerable notice, and like those which contained the Dominion’s gift to England, are being sold as souvenirs. The colours used on the bags are those of Belgium – red, yellow and black -and the words printed thereon are “To the Belgian people, God bless them. Canada’s gift.” In years to come these will not be readily parted with.”[xvi]

Canadian flour sacks decorated in Great Britain
Hardly recovered from my surprise, I draw a remarkable conclusion from all these newspaper reports: Canadian flour sacks in the skilled hands of enthusiasts in Great Britain will have provided the example and inspiration for selling empty flour sacks and decorating the sacks in Belgium. Through the charity and work for Belgian refugees, ideas must have crossed the Channel well before any food aid reached occupied Belgium.


[i] The Scotsman, Augustus 10th, 1914, South Wales Gazette, August 14th, 1914

[ii] Newcastle Journal, September 9th, 1914

[iii] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, September 9th, 1914

[iv] Millom Gazette, September 11th, 1914

[v] The Cornish Telegraph, September 3th, 1914

[vi] Western Chronicle, September 11th, 1914

[vii] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, October 6th, 1914

[viii] The Courier, August 28th, 1914

[ix] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, September 24th, 1914

[x] Evening Despatch, October 31st, 1914

[xi] Whitby Gazette, December 18th, 1914

[xii] Chester Chronicle, December 26th, 1914

[xiii] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, January 23rd, 1915

[xiv] The Sheffield Daily Independent, January 23rd, 1915

[xv] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, January 11th, 1915

[xvi] Todmorden Advertiser and Hebden Bridge Newsletter, January 15th, 1915

“Fröbelen” with a Mons’ diptych

In Mons in the Belgian province of Hainaut, the Mons Memorial Museum (MMM) has a collection of nine decorated WWI flour sacks. The curator, Corentin Rousman, sent me the photo of a special diptych of decorated flour sacks in the museum’s depot.

Diptych of decorated flour sacks: “Portland, The Jobes Milling Co., St. Johns, Oregon” and “Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone County, Idaho” at the Mons Memorial Museum. Collection MMM

The decorated flour sacks in the Mons’ diptych are:
Left: “PORTLAND, The Jobes Milling Co., St. Johns, Portland, Oregon”;
Right: “Belgium Relief donated by Coeur d’Alene Mining District, Shoshone County, Idaho, U.S.A.

The diptych was due for restoration and according to information from the museum (autumn 2019) it would be restored in the restoration studio of TAMAT in Tournai.

View of St. Johns across the Willamette River. The Jobes Milling Co. is the lighter building on the left front of the river. Photo: website

The left panel of the Mons’ diptych: “Portland, The Jobes Milling Co.” 

Diptych, left panel. Decorated flour sack “PORTLAND, The Jobes Milling Co., St. Johns, Portland, Oregon”, embroidered. Coll. MMM

The flour sack from St. Johns, a place located next to the port city of Portland, Oregon, bears a powerful image of a steamship surrounded by knotted ship rope. The printing is carefully embroidered. The patriotic element in the embroidery is the color combination red, yellow, black.

Grain Vessels from all parts of the world in Portland Harbor, circa 1910. Photo: City of Portland Archives Image 002.2042 from George Kramer’s report, p. 15

Portland was known as an important port in the western US, from where grain was shipped to destinations around the world. The Panama Canal, which opened in August 1914, shortened the distance to Europe by 8,000 nautical miles. The history of the significance of grain for this port city is described in the report ‘Grain, Flour and Ships. The Wheat Trade in Portland, Oregon’ by George Kramer,  April 2019.

The “The Jobes Milling Co.” mill in St. Johns, Portland, Ore. Photo: website

The Jobes Milling Co. was founded in 1904 by William Van Zant Jobes, he died in 1907, after which two sons continued the company. Allan R. Jobes was the owner in the period 1914-1918, he must have been the one to have contributed to food aid for Belgium. The mill’s building was demolished in 1930.

Jersey Street in St. Johns, early 1900. Photo: website

The right panel of the Mons’ diptych: “Coeur d’Alene Mining District, Shoshone County”

Diptych panel on the right. Decorated flour sack “Belgium Relief donated by Coeur d’Alene Mining District, Shoshone County, Idaho, U.S.A.”, embroidered. Coll. MMM

Shoshone County, located in Wallace, was the governing body of the mining district “Coeur d” Alene” in the state of Idaho. The area had a modest start as a goldmining district in the early 1880s. However, it was not long before the enormous potential of silver mines was discovered; the district quickly developed into “Silver Valley”.

Miners of the silver mine in Kellogg, Shoshone County, Idaho. Photo: Idaho Mines, website

In 1914, a collection effort for Belgian Relief took place, after which flour in sacks with this printing was sent to Belgium.

Crowned Belgian lion in cross stitches embroidered on the flour sack “Coeur d’Alene Mining District”. Coll. MMM

The crowned Belgian lion in cross stitches
The flour sack “Coeur d’Alene” has its lettered print emphasized by decorative embroidery. The embroiderer has added two designs of her own: the year 1917 decorated with ribbon and the patriotic addition of the Belgian lion.

The Belgian lion wears a golden yellow crown, the embroidery is executed in cross stitches. This is remarkable and refers to a young embroiderer who made the embroidery at school.

Decorated flour sack “American Commission”, embroidered: “Thanks Anderlecht Brussels”. Coll. HHPLM

Similar crowned Belgian lions in cross stitches are found on embroidered flour sacks in other collections with reference to embroiderers and schools. Marcus Eckhardt, curator of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, drew my attention to this phenomenon.

Three fine examples of embroidered flour sacks in their collection are:

Decorated flour sack “American Commission”, embroidered: “Hommage et remerciements d’ Anderlecht 14-15”. Coll. HHPLM. Photo: A. Bollaert

American Commission” with the embroidery “Thanks Anderlecht Brussel“;

“American Commission” with the embroidery “Hommage et remerciements d’Anderlecht” with a coat of arms bearing the years 14-15, flanked by two Belgian lions [1];

Decorated flour sack “American Commission”, embroidered with Belgian coat of arms. Signature S. Dufour. Coll. HHPLM

American Commission” with the embroidery of the Belgian coat of arms, black with yellow, crowned Belgian lion, signed “S. Dufour, Ecole moyenne de St. Gilles, Brussels”.



A private collection in Belgium contains the cardboard embroidery book of “Maria Louis”, she was a student at the Ecole Normale de la Ville de Liège in the ‘Cours normal Fröbel 2e année pour le diplôme d’institutrice gardienne’.

Cross stitched embroidery on cardboard in the album of Maria Louis, “Cours normal Fröbel”, second year, teacher training for pre-school education in Liège, 1920

Apparently one of the exercises in the book was a cross stitched pattern of the Belgian lion. Thanks to Frieda Sorber, former curator of MoMu-Fashion Museum Antwerp, who sent me the photo. She saw this educational embroidery on cardboard in an album, created during the teacher training for pre-school education in Liège, 1920.

Cours normal Fröbel” was a title that required further investigation. Until now, I only knew the Dutch expression “fröbelen” or “froebelen” as a verb in the sense of “non-committal work, taking part in silliness“. I have considered my interest and working on “sacks”, especially in the early days, as a passion in “froebelen“, in this somewhat derogatory meaning.

Friedrich Froebel. Photo: Friedrich-Froebel-Museum website

But here’s what the Liège embroidery in the cardboard book has taught me: Friedrich Froebel (1782-1853) was a German pedagogue of Romanticism, famous as a nursery teacher, theoretician behind “playful learning” [2]. Parents and educators were extremely enthusiastic about the braiding, folding, modeling, cutting, singing and weaving. In 1925, for example, the city of Amsterdam already had fifteen Froebel schools!

Playful learning. “Fröbelen” with a Mons diptych. Again, this blog was created in the spirit of Friedrich Froebel!


[1] The decorated flour sacks from Anderlecht, Brussels, come from the ‘Ecole Libre des Sœurs de Notre Dame Anderlecht’, still an educational institute.

[2] According to Bakker, Noordman et al., “Vijf eeuwen opvoeden in Nederland. Idee en praktijk 1500-2000. (Five centuries of parenting in the Netherlands. Idea and practice 1500-2000)“. Assen, Van Gorcum, 2010.
See also “Fröbelen“, meaning and definition (in Dutch) by Ewoud Sanders, language historian and journalist.

The Friedrich-Froebel-Museum is located in Bad Blankenburg, Germany.


“Sacks are full of memories. Every sack cherishes a precious and fragile story.”


Belgian embroiderers in Mons

My search for one specific image: women who are actually embroidering flour sacks has been successful! This is the photo: two Belgian embroiderers holding embroidery needles and the flour sacks they were working on.

Decorated flour sacks from WWI: Belgian embroiderers in Mons

The ladies were posing for the photographer with a series of original printed, unprocessed flour sacks in the background, probably in 1915. The location was Mons, the capital of the province of Hainaut. The women were committed to the charity work for prisoners of war, the “Mallette du Prisonnier”.

May 4, 2020, Monday afternoon, the long-sought photo ended up in my mailbox, sent spontaneously by Rob Troubleyn. What a gift! Rob Troubleyn is a specialist in the history of the Belgian Army during WWI at the In Flanders Fields’ Knowledge Center in Ypres. Rob is one of the leaders of the “100 years of the First World War” project of VRT NWS, the news service of the Flemish Radio and Television broadcaster. During my research in the Knowledge Center, June 2019, we had met and exchanged contact details. It resulted in this great surprise.

This book contains the photo on p. 109

The photo is printed in the book “La Wallonie dans la Grande Guerre 1914-1918” by Mélanie Bost & Alain Colignon (CEGESOMA), published in the series “Ville en Guerre” at Renaissance du Livre in 2016.
The photo itself is solidly archived in the Musée de la Vie Wallonne in Liège, so it was not hidden in a dusty archive or stored in a box in the attic!

“Mallette du Prisonnier”
In Mons, the prisoners of war relief had been organized by the “Committee de la Mallette du Soldat Belge Prisonnier en Allemagne“, abbreviated <mallette du prisonnier> (literally translated “prisoner’s suitcase”). Several local newspaper reports referred to this in the fall of 1915.

The atmosphere of a game of bounce (jeu de balle) in Charleroi. Photo: Catawiki, Postcards 1900-1940

Sports competitions were organized, such as football, cycling, athletics and bounce (“jeu de balle”), the proceeds of which were for this good cause. [1]

Selling unprocessed and decorated flour sacks would also have been part of the money collection as is shown in the photo.

The photo with caption on p. 109 in the book “La Wallonie dans la Grande Guerre 14-18”

The caption to the photo reads: “Jeunes femmes au service de l’œuvre <La mallette du prisonnier> composant des caisses de vivres à destination des prisonniers de guerre, Mons, 1915. La <mallette du prisonnier> est une émanation de l’ Agence belge de renseignement.
(Young women employed in the work <La mallette du prisonnier> assemble crates of food intended for prisoners of war, Mons, 1915. “La mallette du prisonnier” is part of the Belgian “Information Agency”).

The “Work of the Prisoners of War” was organized locally throughout Belgium. The aim was to raise money and donations in kind to help Belgian prisoners of war in Germany. It took care of shipments of clothing and food. The organization consisted of a group of dedicated (young) ladies and gentlemen who came together to compile and send packages. Thousands of packages of clothing and foodstuffs were shipped to Germany every year. All towns and villages took care of the prisoners from their own community. (See my blog “Een geborduurde Paaszak in Gent: hulp aan krijgsgevangenen“)


Belgian embroiderers in Mons. Photo: La Wallonie dans la Grande Guerre 14-18

The caption of the photo doesn’t properly describe what is actually visible in the photo, namely four young women, two of whom have flour sack embroidery in hand, decorated with empty, unprocessed flour sacks. On the table is a box, “the suitcase”, which the standing woman is filling. The seated woman, on the right, is holding a book, probably the notebook in which orders were written. At the “Caisse de Vivres” the benefactors could buy or donate their packages weighing two kilograms for three francs and five kilos for six francs, it says on the “Mallette du Prisonnier” placard.

Four small flags, of which I recognize the Belgian and American, confirm the patriotic background of the activity.

Photo collage of flour sacks identical to the ones on the photo of “Belgian embroiderers in Mons”

The flour sack prints are very recognizable. Processed and unprocessed flour sacks with these prints can be found in public and private collections, both in Belgium and the US. [2]

On the left, the lady on the chair has a backrest, a “Sperry Mills American Indian” flour sack, very popular amongst collectors, as much in 1915 as now in 2020. A sack “Aux Héroiques Belges de la part de leurs Amis Vancouver Canada, Hard Wheat Flour British Columbia Patent 98 LBS” is hanging from the table. On the left wall are two flour sacks “CASCADIA Portland Roller Mills, Portland, Oregon” and “American Consul The Rockefeller Foundation Belgium Relief War Relief Donation FLOUR 49 LBS net“. In the center above the table we see the flour sack “Contributed by the People of Kentucky and Southern Indiana USA through The Louisville Herald“. To the right of that I distinguish the flour sack “Contributed by the People of Indiana USA“, collected by the Indianapolis Star newspaper for the Belgian Relief Fund. On the top right wall a flour sack “Hanford Roller Mills, HG Lacey Company, Hanford, California” has been hung. Underneath is a flour sack “Donated by Belgian Food Relief Committee, Chicago, U.S.A.” Finally, I see behind the standing young woman a “Chicago’s Flour Gift” sack, collected by the “Chicago Evening Post“.

The two flour sacks in the hands of the embroiderers are currently not identifiable to me.

Exhibition “Sacs américains brodés”: decorated flour sacks
In early 1916, embroidered flour sacks were exhibited in Mons in a shop window.

Le Quotidien, January 8, 1916

In Mons. The “prisoner exhibition”. – Since a few days we can admire a shiny decor of fine woodwork and scarlet fabrics in the Mali windows in the Rue de la Chaussée in Mons, in which artworks are presented, paintings, watercolors, photography, pyrography, tin, brass and relief leather, embroidered flour sacks, various kinds of lace, embroidery, etc. All this together is the ‘Exhibition of the Mons prisoner’; everyone contributed to the constitution. Men and women, children and old people, rich and poor, they all turned out to be artists!” [3]

Mons Memorial Museum
The Mons Memorial Museum has a collection of nine decorated WWI flour sacks. Curator Corentin Rousman previously sent me an overview photo of the museum’s permanent exhibition, which contains some WWI flour sacks.

Permanent display in Mons Memorial Museum. On the right side of the wall some decorated flour sacks in WWI. Mons Memorial Museum collection

Now that I take a closer look at this photo, I am delighted to see two flour sacks that are the same as the ones in the photo of the embroiderers: “Sperry Mills” and “Rockefeller Foundation“!

Coincidence or not, the decorated flour sacks in WWI continue to fascinate me!

My sincere thanks to Rob Troubleyn for sending the pictures!


[1] Le Bruxellois: August 13 and December 6, 1915; La Belgique: journal publié pendant l’occupation sous la censure ennemie: September 9 and 16; October 14 and 20; November 5; December 5, 1915; January 25, 1916

[2] The photo collage contains eight flour sacks from the following collections:
CASCADIA Portland Roller Mills, Portland, Oregon: St. Edward’s University, Austin, Tx
Chicago’s Flour Gift, Chicago Evening Post, Illinois: Coll. Frankie van Rossem
Hanford Roller Mills, H. G. Lacey Company, Hanford, California: HHPLM
American Consul The Rockefeller Foundation: MRAH, Brussels
Contributed by the People of Kentucky and Southern Indiana: HHPLM
Sperry Mills American Indian, California: IFFM, Ypres
Aux Héroiques Belges de la part de leurs Amis Vancouver Canada: MRAH, Brussels
Contributed by the People of Indiana: WHI, Brussels

[3] Le Quotidien, January 8, 1916

Madame Vandervelde Fund 3: Home on the Lusitania (ENG)

To me, the WWI decorated flour sacks of the Madame Vandervelde Fund stand out. It makes me happy to know that there was a woman who came to the rescue of the Belgian people with conviction. That woman was Lalla Vandervelde-Speyer (Camberwell, England, April 4, 1870 – Putney, England, November 8, 1965). She is one of the many women who worked determinedly towards her goal: care for destitute Belgian compatriots. Her decorated flour sacks also tell the story of charity, gratitude and food aid.
This is part 3 of a series of three blogs.
(See my blogs: Madame Vandervelde Fund 1 and Madame Vandervelde Fund 2)

Decorated flour sack “Madame Vandervelde Fund”, embroidered and machine-made lace. Courtesy Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum. Photo: E. McMillan

The decorated flour sacks are surprisingly featured in Lalla Vandervelde’s biography “Monarchs and Millionaires”.[1]
She reflects on her relationship with American men during her stay, which leads to the sacks of flour she sent to Belgium and her name on these sacks. She was in fear about added print, because the Germans did not accept that there would be names of senders on the relief goods. It turned out fine and later Lalla saw decorated flour sacks: they had been sent to her by schoolgirls, who had embroidered the stamped letters of her name “Madame Vandervelde” on the sacks.

In a few paragraphs, Lalla summarized it in her book: “Men did not try to make love to me. I suppose they realized that being in mourning, very much upset about what was going on in Europe, and very hard worked with speaking all over the country, any advances would have been discountenanced immediately. But some of them were distinctly sentimental. One, who was also very energetic and helpful, wrote me almost passionate letters about my work. He compared me to Joan of Arc and Diana of Ephesus: a curious mixture. Knowing that my chief interest in peace time had lain in questions pertaining to art, he used to send me long disquisitions on Berenson’s latest book, at the same time quoting prices, in the most business-like way, of commodities that I might buy and send to Europe.’

Marthe Robinet, Ecole Moyenne St. Gilles, Brussels, embroidered this flour sack “Madame Vandervelde Fund”. Collection Hoover Institution Archives. Image taken by HILA Staff. Photo: E. McMillan

About the choice of cotton flour sacks: ‘It was this kind and generous friend who helped me to send off the first lot of sacks filled with flour to Belgium, the country that needed bread most at the time. It was his idea to choose linen of which the sacks were made in such fine quality that when washed and bleached it could be used for men’s shirts or for little frocks or overalls for children.’

About stamping the name Madame Vandervelde on the flour sacks: ‘My name was stamped on each one of the sacks, and I remember my anguish when, shortly after they had been shipped, the news came that the Germans would not allow any object marked with a name to enter a country they were occupying. I spent a sleepless night wondering what would happen to the flour that was wanted so badly. Much to my relief, the German Embassy in Washington, to whom my kind friend had wired, answered that permission would be given for the sacks to be landed.

Decorated flour sack “Madame Vandervelde Fund”, embroidery and open stitching. Collection Hoover Institution Archives. Image taken by HILA Staff. Photo: E. McMillan

About the embroidered flour sacks that she sees later: “Later I had the great joy to see some of them again. They were sent to me by school children who had embroidered the letters of my name on them surrounded by pretty designs of their own making.’ 

Contrary to the impression that arises from these paragraphs about the contributions to food aid, Madame Vandervelde herself preferred to use the money she collected mainly for the real heroes: the Belgian soldiers, who fought in the trenches on the small piece of Belgian land that was still in their occupation. However, this was impossible. America’s neutrality only allowed the collection of money for aid to the civilian population of the war countries. Nevertheless, in private conversations, she managed to acquire some donations for the help of soldiers. She bought and shipped the following goods to them: 10,284 pairs of socks, 2,160 sets of underwear and 400 blankets.

Manhattan, New York, 1914. Photo: Wolfgang Wiggers online Flickr album

Despite her mission’s success, Lalla experienced her six-month stay in the US as a major burden on her nerves. She didn’t know what it was like to be unhappy for so long, she couldn’t forget the horrible war for a moment, she was tired and depressed. ‘The mere fact of being so very far away from my own people, from my compatriots and friends, on another continent, in another world, where, however kindly received, the whole point of view, the whole outlook on life, was different, seemed more than I could bear sometimes. Almost every time I opened a European paper I saw news of the death of a friend, and I used to leave my letters from Europe unopened for days, so terrified was I of finding bad news.

Bad news from home, continual speaking in public, equally important private engagements, when I tried to enlist the sympathies of influential individuals for the cause of the Allies, long railway journeys by night, at the end of which there were always crowds of reporters anxious to interview me before I even had a bath or breakfast; such conditions were not destined to improve an already uncertain nervous system.”

At Yale College in New Haven, she was the first woman to speak to the students: “they attended my meeting en masse”. She also visited Harvard. Then she went to Canada where she spoke in Ottawa in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Princess Patricia. At her farewell, the Duke pressed a $ 600 check in her hands.

Manhattan, New York, 1914. Photo: Wolfgang Wiggers online Flickr album

Back in New York in December 1914, she tried to express her sense of art, attended several concerts, and went to museums and galleries to view paintings. During her visits to millionaires, she was usually given the opportunity to see these people’s private art collections.

American praise
In mid-March 1915, Lalla Vandervelde was in Carnegie Hall, New York, where she delivered the last speech of her mission. Mr. Choate, one of the foremost lawyers in the US, praised her. The speech is fully printed in her book.

The illustrated Sunday edition of The New York Times posted this photo of Lalla Vandervelde after her departure from America to Europe on April 11, 1915. Photo: “Photo by Mathilde Weil, from Paul Thompson”

On the eve of your departure for your home in Belgium it seems fitting that there should be some expression, inadequate though it must be, of the great regard in which you are held by hosts of men and women in this country.
During the five months since you came to us, shortly after the outbreak of the War, you have presented all over the United States the dire need of your unhappy countrymen. More than any other person you have made us realize the urgency of this need, its appaling extent and its heartrending appeal. You have been inspired by an eloquence born of your noble mission and you have won the response which could not fail to come.
There are forms of patriotic service which demand courage of a higher order even than that of the soldier in battle, a courage which has not the spur of excitement or impulse, a courage in the face of suspense, of heart-sickness far from home, family and friends, of utter weariness of body and spirit. Such courage, dear lady, since first you came to these shores to this present moment, has been yours.
We honor you as a brave souled woman; we thank you for making so clear our privilege of such human helpfulness as we can give, and we bid you farewell with feelings of deepest sympathy and the most earnest hope that brighter days will soon return to the country you love so truly and serve so devotedly.
New York, March 17, 1915”

The Lusitania of the British Cunard Line. Photo: internet

Home on the Lusitania
On April 3, 1915 she left for Europe on the ship “Lusitania” of the British Cunard Line. In Lalla’s words, the ship made “the last journey to Europe before the ever memorable one”, the second to last trip before it would be torpedoed by a German submarine and perished. This voyage of the passenger ship was also full of tension for the passengers, there was danger during the crossing.

The New York Evening World headlined, “Lusitania sails to-day with 838 pale passengers – Fear of German Submarines Makes All on Board Nervous – Some Cancel Passage. – Fast Trip is Planned- Liner’s Speed Expected to Protect Greatest Number to Sail Since War Began.” The security measures were strict, all passengers were carefully examined and their luggage checked.

Manhattan, New York, 1914. Photo: Wolfgang Wiggers online Flickr album

At the last minute, a messenger brought a package with $ 500 for Madame Vandervelde on board. Three war correspondents, including Mr. E. Alexander Powell of the “New York World”, were also on board.[2]

All this has not been mentioned in Lalla’s biography. She did talk about a luxury problem. Her cabin on the ship was loaded with gifts from American friends and supporters, and she shared them as much as she could with staff and fellow passengers. She kept the fruits for her family in England. 

Decorated flour sack “Madame Vandervelde Fund”, embroidery and applications. Courtesy Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum. Photo: E. McMillan

Back in Europe

The Sun, October 3, 1914

In New York Lalla had prepared for the possible suspicion about her work from people back in Europe. She had the finances and administration of the Madame Vandervelde Fund, punctually maintained by her secretary Miss Conklin, verified by a leading accounting firm. After returning to England, she was visited by a journalist who asked her which cities she had visited on her mission. The American place names were so unknown to him that she had to spell them for him. Then he asked how much money she had collected. Her answer “about $ 300,000, equivalent to 60,000 British pounds or one and a half million francs” led to his response “That is quite impossible for a woman”. Whereupon the auditor’s report emerged and she urged him to publish the detailed justification of the funds in his article.

Belgian newspapers reported in April on the results of Mrs. Emile Vandervelde’s mission[3]:
“With the thought of coming to the aid of the Belgian refugees, Madame Vandervelde, wife of the Minister of State, went to America to give a series of lectures about Belgium and about the German invasion of our country. These lectures yielded one and a half million francs.”

De Legerbode (The Army Messenger), September 2, 1915

Five months later, another article appeared in De Legerbode[4] (The “Army Messenger”), showing the destination of the funds raised in America:
“The courageous traveler traveled through the United States from September 18, 1914 to April 2, 1915. She managed to collect the good sum of 1,437,135.75 fr., which was spent as follows:
For return to the homeland 388,479.45 fr.
For food purchases for Belgium: 995,426.30 fr.
For the special fund: 53,230 fr.
Madame Vandervelde continued her apostolate in England, where her brilliant readings yielded the sum of 30,000 francs. Here is a vigorous woman, and a brave propagandist of noble thoughts, who deserves general gratitude.”

Further research
In the past three blogs I have tried to tell part of the life story of Lalla Vandervelde-Speyer. She was a striking, yes, legendary woman. Especially when I consider her role towards the decorated flour sacks from WWI.
Yet surprisingly little has been written about her. Where she has been mentioned, sometimes blatant inaccuracies have been debited. After her divorce from Emile Vandervelde, living in England again, she apparently disappeared from publicity. She died in Putney at the age of 95.
For twenty years Lalla Speyer and Emile Vandervelde were partners with a great mutual influence on each other’s work and life. They both played a role, together and separately, on the world stage in the turbulent time of 1900-1920.
I would heartily recommend further research into the life of Lalla Vandervelde-Speyer.


Sincere thanks to Evelyn McMillan, Stanford University. She sent me pictures of decorated flour sacks in the collections of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum and the Hoover Institution Archives.

Sacks are full of memories. Each sack cherishes a precious and fragile story.


[1] Vandervelde, Lalla, Monarchs and Millionaires. London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1925

[2] New York Evening World, April 3, 1915

[3] De Legerbode (The Army Messenger), April 24, 1915; also: De Gentenaar. De landwacht. De kleine patriot, April 28, 1915

[4] De Legerbode (The Army Messenger), September 2, 1915

Madame Vandervelde Fund 2: 300,000 dollar donations (ENG)

To me, the WWI decorated flour sacks of the Madame Vandervelde Fund stand out. It makes me happy to know that there was a woman who came to the rescue of the Belgian people with conviction. That woman was Lalla Vandervelde-Speyer (Camberwell, England, April 4, 1870 – Putney, England, November 8, 1965). She is one of the many women who worked determinedly towards her goal: care for destitute Belgian compatriots. Her decorated flour sacks also tell the story of charity, gratitude and food aid.
This is part 2 of a series of three blogs.
(See my blogs: Madame Vandervelde Fund 1 and Madame Vandervelde Fund 3)

In her biography “Monarchs and Millionaires”, published in 1925, Lalla Vandervelde gave her personal impressions of her six-month stay in America in four chapters, totaling 60 pages. I provide an anthology of stories from the book.[1]

The “Madame Vandervelde Fund” stamp on the unprocessed flour sack “Gold Dust”, Thornton & Chester, Buffalo, NY. (see also photos below) Collection RAHM Tx 2630

To America
In Antwerp, fleeing from the advancing German army, Lalla stayed with her husband at Hotel St. Antoine and experienced an air raid of German Zeppelins for the first time in her life. She was terrified by the sound of falling and detonating bombs.

The following evening she stood in the hotel hallway and met with Mr. E. Alexander Powell, correspondent of the American newspaper “New York World”, who said to her “Why don’t you go over to the States and enlist the sympathy of American women and children for the poor Belgians? ” The suggestion opened her eyes to what she could do, and she immediately took action to realize it. She did not want to embark on the adventure without the consent of the Belgian government, or at least that of Prime Minister Baron de Broqueville, so she visited him and presented her plan. His response was negative: “he liked the idea, but did not approve of a woman going alone on such a hazardous expedition, and so on and so forth”. Disillusioned, she left him, but met King Albert’s private secretary and told him about her plan.

The letter from the lady-in-waiting to Madame Vandervelde on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. From: “Monarchs and Millionaires”. Coll. International Institute of Social History

He promised to discuss it with the King and a few hours later he said that King Albert fully agreed with the plan: “He knew what influence women have in America, and sent 4,000 francs towards my traveling expenses.”

Queen Elizabeth in turn instructed a lady-in-waiting to send Madame Vandervelde a letter approving the project, wishing her the best of luck and indicating that she could take the letter with her to read it out in America.

The Belgian Mission: Messrs De Sadeleer, Vandervelde, Henri Carton de Wiart and Hymans. The Sun, September 12, 1914

The Belgian Mission appointed by King Albert, including her husband Emile Vandervelde, left on September 3 with the White Star Liner “Celtic” and arrived in New York on September 12. I have read this in American newspapers. In her biography, Lalla has not written a single word about the mission, not even about her husband.

Liverpool harbour in 1914. Image: online

Because Lalla was not allowed to travel on the same ship – “no women ever, or could, in any circumstances, accompany a diplomatic mission” – it was not easy to book a cabin on the next ship. With the help of British former ambassador to Japan, Sir Claude MacDonald, she managed to leave Liverpool for New York on September 8, 1914 on the White Liner “Cretic”.

Port of Liverpool Building, around 1914. Image: online

The war had raged for over four weeks now and 75 percent of the Belgian territory was in the hands of the Germans. During the ten days at sea, there would be no news reports for the passengers. For Lalla, that felt unbearable, and she got a radio operator to promise to inform her in secret should there be any news to report. On September 14th she received a signal and heard that the Germans had been stopped in their advance in France.

On board she prepared her mission: to evoke sympathy from the Americans by telling them as an eyewitness about the horrors that had taken place in Belgium. She hoped to influence the public opinion and appeal to the well-known generosity of Americans to ease the fate of Belgian refugees. At that time, she did not know that within three months the catastrophe would be much greater and the question was how to feed all the Belgians who lived in occupied territory, this number would grow to 7.5 million people…

Lalla Vandervelde, “Monarchs and Millionaires”. title page of her biography. Coll. International Institute of Social History

She spoke to two fellow travelers, Mr. Augustus Gardner, a member of the United States Congress, and Mr. McEnerney, a highly skilled lawyer from San Francisco, and took their valuable advice on how to frame her propaganda. She realized that she should tell her story in simple terms and without emotion. Only then could she count on support from the people of the US, where many pro-German sentiments were present. The evening before arriving in New York, the captain gave her the opportunity to tell her story on board the ship. She raised an initial amount of $ 360.

In New York City
September 18, 1914, upon arriving from the “Cretic” in New York on a sunny, warm day, she dressed in a colorful summer outfit without thinking about her role. The reaction of a fellow traveler made her realize that her choice of clothing should support her message, so she had her wardrobe dyed black in New York.

Once disembarked, reporters and photographers swarmed around her, but she did not give interviews or comments. She first wanted to speak to the Belgian Relief Committee*) to find out what she could and could not say. The Belgian Consul General, Mr. Mali, picked her up at the port and brought her to her place to stay. The next day, she received a secretary, Miss Conklin, who assisted her for six months.

The Evening World, New York, September 18, 1914

On September 18th, in the Evening World, the evening edition of the New York World, correspondent Alexander Powell’s newspaper, an article with photo appeared under the headline “Mme. Vandervelde brings note from Queen Elizabeth. Wife of Belgian Minister of State Here to Appeal to Americans. Woman envoy here to appeal for aid for destitute Belgians.

Manhattan, New York, 1910. Image: online

Travelling in America
Lalla Vandervelde began her adventure, she humorously reports on her visits to millionaires and dignitaries in her book. Her hostesses and hosts have mostly remained anonymous, so she could poke fun at their boredom, their lack of knowledge about culture, their lack of knowledge of international politics, their dependence on staff. In general, she was “full of pity for this poor millionaire”. She also met a young super millionaire who couldn’t give her money. “the money he devoted to charities was managed and distributed by a committee of specialists in economics, in social hygiene or in some other form of benevolence. This struck me as being a logical, if unpleasant, way of distributing riches.”

Another anecdote: “I spoke on that day to a room full of very expensive looking people. The women …, wore the most outrageous clothes. But they were interested, in their own way in the War, and had made it the fashion to knit very brightly-coloured silk scarves to send to the British and French boys at the front. It was maddening to have to speak about the horrors of the War to the clicking of knitting needles…” Then a pug entered the room as it could no longer live without its owner, but it squeaked, barked and ran around, so she had to stop talking until the dog was removed, along with his mistress. Conclusion: “I did not get anything like the money I expected from that rich audience.”

People with small incomes, drivers and servants in restaurants, clothing workers, went out of their way and collected money, which they handed over with a few kind, encouraging words.

Decorated flour sack “Madame Vandervelde Fund”, embroidered. Courtesy Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum. Photo: E. McMillan

Lalla was very pleased with the American female and male journalists and had a good working relationship with them. She recalled a New York dinner party with six female journalists as one of the most interesting experiences during her American stay. “They were eager, tired looking women. Most of them had been married young and badly treated by their husbands, whom they had divorced. This meant poverty, and not infrequently one or two children to bring up. They were very naturally proud at having made a success of life and told me details of the terrible struggles they had gone through. Most of them hated men with an extraordinary active and vital hatred. Only one of them said she was still in love with her husband, but as he was exploiting her, she felt she ought to leave him. She spoke as if she were ashamed of her love and reluctance to be free.

I had never met so many women in the same circumstances. They were not soured or embittered, but proud and happy, especially when they spoke about their children, who were mostly grown up and prepared, through their mothers’ struggles for the battle of life”.

With Lalla’s interest in the role of women, she portrayed American society in late 1914, early 1915: “There is no stigma attached to certain kinds of work, as there was in Europe before the War, and a woman’s scope is infinitely wider than at home.”

Le XXsiecle: journal d’union et d’action catholique, January 16, 1915

Messages in Belgian newspapers
After three months, some Belgian newspapers reported on Madame Vandervelde’s mission. [2]

“In America – The charitable movement in favor of suffering Belgium is growing daily. This is how Mrs. Lalla Vandervelde, returning to New York from a three-month trip through the United States, brought in donations in kind and in cash for the sum of $ 213,000. She continues her fruitful journey.”

The Mill Thornton & Chester in Buffalo, NY. Image: online

Another article featured the news of a large donation of Buffalo sacks of flour, saying that the sacks were intended for reuse: “Madame Vandervelde, the wife of the Secretary of State, has been in the United States for more than three months. There she gave and gives a series of lectures about Belgium and the horrors of which the country has fallen victim, that have been overwhelmingly successful and in which Belgium and the Belgians have been praised. … After these meetings, donations for families of Belgian victims pour in. Madame Vandervelde has already collected almost 1,400,000 francs!

Unprocessed flour sack “Gold Dust” from Thornton & Chester, Buffalo, NY. The back of the flour sack is stamped with “Madame Vandervelde Fund”. (see photo above) Coll. RAHM Tx 2630

In Buffalo, industrialists have loaded her with a ship with 10,000 sacks of flour – sacks made of fine cloth and fine fabric, so that they can then be used and transformed into clothes and towels for the Belgians.
Madame Vandervelde was in Boston last week where her lectures were attended by 5,000 people.[3]]




Madame Vandervelde Fund
I became aware of the fund thanks to the WWI decorated flour sacks in museum collections in Belgium and the US, decorated with her name. I therefore asked myself: how large was the organization, who formed the board?

Decorated flour sack “Gold Dust”, Thornton & Chester, Buffalo, NY, embroidered. The back of this flour sack may have been stamped “Madame Vandervelde Fund”. The flour sack is exhibited in the permanent display of the Royal Military Museum, Brussels. Coll. War Heritage Institute

According to Lalla Vandervelde’s biography, she founded the Madame Vandervelde Fund to house the large amounts of collected dollars. However, the structure of the fund was very simple: it consisted of the two-woman organization of Madame herself and her secretary Miss Conklin! Lalla Vandervelde: “I have always been proud to think that we two women, without any committee to back us, organized my campaign, which produced in material things alone 300,000 dollars or, what was at that time, a million and a half francs.”

To be continued.
Read here my blog Madame Vandervelde Fund 3

*) The Belgian Relief Committee: Jeffrey B. Miller mentioned Madame Vandervelde in relation to the Belgian Relief Committee in his first book “Behind the Lines“, Millbrown Press, 2014, at p. 226 en 227:

“The Belgian Relief Committee had been founded in the late summer by a “few modest Belgians and their sympathizers,” according to one magazine article. At its head was Rev. J. F. Stillemans, a Catholic priest of Belgian birth …
Stillemans got involved in trying to
help the Belgian refugees and became the president of the Belgian Relief Committee. The chairman of the executive committee, and the real power behind the group, was Robert W. de Forest, the vice president of the American Red Cross. During a vacation in Europe that was interrupted by the start of the war, he had seen the Belgian devastation. When he returned home he started the group outside the confines of the Red Cross.  The Belgian members of de Forest’s organization included the Belgian consul in New York, the Belgian minister to the United States, and a well-to-do patron, Madame Vandervelde. …
She had become a darling of New York City, and the country, when she announced she would not go home until she had collected $1 million to aid her country.”


“Sacks are full of memories. Every sack cherishes a precious and vulnerable story.”

My sincere thanks to Dr. Ingrid De Meûter and Ria Cooreman of the Royal Art & History Museum in Brussels. They gave me the opportunity to study the museum’s WWI collection of flour sacks, the so-called “Errera Collection”, which includes two unprocessed flour sacks from the Madame Vandervelde Fund, on February 21, 2020.

[1] Vandervelde, Lalla, Monarchs and Millionaires. London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1925

[2] L’écho belge- journal quotidien du matin paraissant à Amsterdam, December 16, 1914

[3] Le XXsiecle: journal d’union et d’action catholique, January 16, 1915; translated from French