From Aid to Embroidery in Ohio, USA

High demand for wheat. The Lima Morning Star and Republican Gazette, Lima, Ohio, October 24, 1914

American wheat sales rose to unprecedented levels in the fall of 1914 due to the European war. The wheat exchange in Chicago made record sales through purchases from agents of the German and English governments.

Northwestern Elevator and Mill Company, Mount Vernon, Ohio

An Ohion newspaper headlined “Flour Mills busy” in October 1914. Northwestern Elevator & Mill Co.’s two largest mills, in Mount Vernon and Toledo, and National Milling Co. in Toledo, coped well with the large orders. They exported their entire production to Liverpool, Glasgow and Paris[1]. 

Northwestern Elevator and Mill Co, American School painting, oil on canvas, 46×61 cm; photo:

At the end of November, the mills made the newspapers again because of a humanitarian relief movement intended to help the population of occupied Belgium. The mills contributed to the relief effort of the Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement, organized by the Minneapolitan trade journal Northwestern Miller.

The Fulton County Tribune, Fulton, November 27, 1914

Northwestern Elevator & Mill Co. immediately pledged 50 barrels of flour and invited the citizens of Mt. Vernon to contribute to the relief campaign by purchasing at least one sack of flour at cost price:


The Democratic Banner, Mount Vernon, December 22, 1914

“The flour is to be shipped in heavy cotton bags containing forty-nine pounds. Anyone wishing to donate, can purchase flour from us at the cost price of $5.00 per barrel. No donations will be accepted for less than one forty-nine pound sack. … We will donate 50 barrels, and trust that enough more will be donated by our generous citizens to make the shipment from Mt. Vernon at least a car load of two hundred barrels.” (The Democratic Banner, 1 december 1914)

The call for aid made by Northwestern Elevator & Mill Co. was a success: a full train car with 820 sacks of flour (205 barrels) left for Philadelphia at the end of December to be delivered to SS South Point. The local organizing committee of Mt. Vernon thanked all donors through a newspaper article:

The Democratic Banner, Mt. Vernon, December 25, 1914
Flour sack “Belgian Relief Flour”, The National Milling Co., Toledo, Ohio, 1914/15. Coll. en photo: HHLP 62.4.120

The Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement’s relief effort was successful throughout Ohio. Dozens of mills contributed for a total of 4,861 barrels of flour (equivalent to over 20 carloads, 19,444 sacks of 49 Lbs, 430 tons of flour). The Relief Report[2] stated the following regarding Ohio’s mills:

Ohio millers and residents donated 4,861 barrels of flour. Report Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement, Minneapolis, Minn., 1915

Re-use of Ohio flour sacks in Belgium

Instructions from the Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement; Beatrice Daily Sun, Beatrice, Nebraska, January 2, 1915

Using cotton sacks was a necessary stimulus to the American cotton industry. The cotton sacks in which the flour was packed were intended for reuse in Belgium. The Belgian women and girls have gratefully made use of the cotton. After the sacks were emptied at the bakeries, they proceeded to make the sacks into clothes.

Flour sack “Belgian Relief Flour”, The Northwestern Elevator & Mill Co., Toledo, Ohio. Back of a jacket, 1915. Coll. HHPL; photo: Callens/Magniette
Decorated flour sack “Belgian Relief Flour”, The National Milling Co., Toledo, Ohio, 1914/15. col. and photo: HIA

An example of a jacket made from a Northwestern Elevator & Mill flour sack is part of the collection of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, West-Branch, Iowa (HHPL).

Most flour sacks are embroidered and embellished.

Belgian author Gilles wrote about a flour sack from Springfield, Ohio[3]:
Saturday 17 July 1915
The American sacks that contained the wheat flour for the Belgian National Relief and Nutrition Committee (CNSA) are particularly popular among collectors of war memories. The sacks are printed and the more characteristic the printing, the higher the sales price. A sack of 30 francs is printed with blue and red letters, the text reads in English:

                                               From the city of Springfield, Ohio
                                               As a testimony of affection
                                               Our friends the Belgians
                                               To this heroic nation
                                               God bless it!

Decorated flour sack The Moody & Thomas Milling Co, Peninsula, Ohio. Coll. and photo HHPL 62.4.391

Besides the jacket, I have located four more copies of the flour sacks delivered in Belgium by the Miller’s Belgian Relief Movement.
Two embroidered flour sacks have been preserved:

One flour sack of the Moody & Thomas Milling Co., Peninsula (collection HHPL); the second of The National Milling Co., Toledo (Hoover Institution Archives collection, Stanford University, HIA).


Flour sack “DEWEY’S”, The Dewey BROS. Co., Blanchester, Ohio. Coll. WHI; photo: author

Also, two original flour sacks have been preserved: one from Dewey Bros. Co., Blanchester (collection War Heritage Institute, Brussels (WHI)); the second of The National Milling Co., Toledo (collection HHPL 62.4.120).


OHIO Commission for Relief of European War Sufferers
Six weeks later, another appeal was made to Ohioans. The Ohio Commission for Relief of European War Sufferers was founded on January 4, 1915 in Columbus. During a luncheon those present decided to raise supplies and money to help victims of the European war, with the support of State Board of Commerce staff.

The Fulton County Tribune, Fulton, January 15, 1915
Mr. Edward Drummond Libbey (1854-1925) and Mrs. Florence Scott Libbey (1863-1938), ca. 1901; photo Wikipedia

President of the committee was E.D. Libbey from Toledo, treasurer E.R. Sharp from Columbus, Secretary O.K. Shimansky from Columbus.
The state of Ohio was home to European emigrants and their descendants from many countries; that is why the Commission made a broad effort to provide assistance to “European War Sufferers”. Priority was given to assistance to the Belgian population; the commission intended to secure a shipload of provisions for the Belgians to be moved early in February 1915.

The Ohio Woman’s Auxiliary: Mrs. Estelle Thompson, née Clark
Although men were appointed to the committee, women carried out the work. The existing and well-managed women’s organizations started working centrally and locally. Communication proceeded through letters, calls and advertisements in the newspapers; orally at regular meetings of clubs, churches and schools.

History of the Woman’s Section of the CRB, 1915

The Ohio Woman’s Auxiliary was headed by Mrs. Estelle Godfrey Thompson, née Clark (Massillon, Stark County 13.02.1862 – Columbus 29.06.1945), wife of President William Oxley Thompson of Ohio State University in Columbus. Mrs. Wm. O. Thompson was a member of The Woman’s Section of The Commission for Relief in Belgium, serving both on the “Executive Co-operating Committee” as chair of  the National Federation of College Women as the “State Chairmen” as chair of Ohio.

Estelle Clark Tompson in “Woman’s Who is Who in America, 1914/15”

Estelle Clark Thompson descended from a well-to-do Cleveland family; she worked as a teacher of dramatics at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. At the age of 32 she married William Thompson; she was his third wife; he was twice widowed and had two daughters from his first and two sons from his second marriage. Estelle Clark Thompson took care of the four young children; she remained childless herself. She played an active role in Ohio women’s organizations and campaigned for women’s rights: “Favors women suffrage”.

Detail flour sack “Kentucky and Southern Indiana”/Brand Whitlock; 1915/16. Coll. and photo CCHSM no. 4003

Mr. Brand Whitlock and Mrs. Ella Whitlock, née Brainerd
During World War I, the diplomat Brand Whitlock (Urbana, Ohio, USA 04.03.1869 – Cannes, France 24.05.1934) was American minister plenipotentiary in Belgium seating in Brussels. He acted as patron of the international “Commission for Relief in Belgium” (CRB) and the Belgian National Relief Committee “Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation” (CNSA), the organizations that coordinated and implemented food relief for the population in occupied Belgium.

Mrs. Ella Brainerd Whitlock; photo: Library of Congress

He lived in Brussels with his wife, Ella Whitlock, née Brainerd (Springfield, Ill. 25.09.1876 – Brewster, NY 11.07.1942). Ella Brainerd Whitlock worked energetically to help the Belgian population and closely collaborated with the Belgian women’s organizations.

Detail flour sack “Kentucky and Southern Indiana”/Brand Whitlock; portrait L. van Loo, 1915/16. Coll. and photo CCHSM, no. 4003

Brand Whitlock felt connected to the state of Ohio. Before becoming a diplomat in 1914, he had been elected mayor of Toledo four times (1906-1914); he had worked there as a lawyer from 1897. Due to his connection with Ohio, he became member of the honorary advisory commission of the Ohio Commission for Relief of European War Sufferers. He successfully appealed to the American people to aid the Belgians with food.

As a result of their work, the Whitlocks received many gifts for their efforts, including decorated flour sacks.

After her husband passed away, Ella Brainerd Whitlock returned to the US. She donated many objects, including their interesting collection of flour sacks to the Champaign County Historical Society in Urbana and Toledo. The Champaign County Historical Society Museum in Urbana (CCHSM) preserves this collection. See also the blog: Flour sack trip from Urbana to Overijse

Flour sacks with portrait of Brand Whitlock
Two flour sacks with Brand Whitlock’s portrait stand out.

Embroidered flour sack “American Commission”/ Brand Whitlock; 1915. Coll. and photo CCHSM, no. 4001

The origin of flour sack no. 4001 is “American Commission”; the Belgian embroiderer added as texts: “A.S.E.M. Brand Whitlock, M. P. des Etats-Unis à Bruxelles; E Pluribus Unum; La Belgique Reconnaissante 1914-1915”. The portrait looks like a lithography, surrounded by an embroidered green laurel wreath; to the left and right of the portrait are embroideries of the Belgian and American flags; on the lower part of the flour sack the “Great Shield of the United States” is embroidered, along with the eagle with spread wings and the stars representing the thirteen original colonies of the US plus the text: “E Pluribus Unum”.

Decorated flour sack “Kentucky and Southern Indiana”/Brand Whitlock; portrait L. van Loo, 1915/16. Coll. and photo CCHSM, no. 4003, recto
Decorated flour sack “Kentucky and Southern Indiana”/Brand Whitlock; 1915/16. col. and photo CCHSM, no. 4003, verso

The other flour sack, no. 4003, bears the original print “Contributed by the People of Kentucky and Southern Indiana” via The Louisville Herald, produced by Louisville Milling Co, Louisville, KY. In Belgium, the sack had been printed with red letters: “A Son Excellence Monsieur Brand Whitlock, Ministre des Etats-Unis à Bruxelles. La Belgique entière acclame les Etats-Unis.” The flags of Belgium and the US are embroidered, as are the letters of the original print. The photo portrait of Brand Whitlock is colorized, signed “L. van Loo”. The photographer may presumably have been Leo Petrus Julius (Leon) van Loo (Sint-Joris-ten Distel 19.08.1841 – Cincinnati 10.01.1907) He was an art photographer born in Belgium, who emigrated to Ohio at the age of 15, following his Ghent teacher Charles Waldack. Waldack was able to emigrate to Cincinnati, because Leon van Loo’s father paid him in exchange for his son’s training as a photographer. Van Loo lived in Cincinnati for the rest of his life. It seems likely that he made a photo portrait of (a younger) Brand Whitlock in the US and that a print of the portrait ended up in his old hometown Ghent, Belgium, where it has been used for the flour sack(s).

SS Naneric; photo: Allen C. Green series (online)

State Ship SS Naneric
CRB’s New York office contracted the British steamship Naneric as State Ship of Ohio. SS Naneric had made an earlier trip to Calcutta, India, and had to voyage from there to New York to take the cargo on board. On that 65-day voyage from Calcutta to New York, SS Naneric passed through the Suez Canal and was caught up in war. The battle it found itself in was between the Allied army, supported by fire from French and British cruisers, and a Turkish land force, commanded by German officers.
Captain Tulloch of the Naneric reported that his steamer entered the Suez Canal on February 1, 1915 but had not been allowed to proceed because of the battle. After days delay, the vessel was permitted to proceed to Port Said, protected with sandbags. On March 8, SS Naneric docked in Philadelphia.[4]

The Ohio women’s fundraising campaigns were successful; trains brought carloads of flour to New York Harbor.

The Democratic Banner, Mt. Vernon, February 19, 1915
The Democratic Banner, March 9, 1915

On March 27, SS Naneric departed from New York as the Ohio State Ship with the relief supplies on board and arrived in Rotterdam around April 20. The relief supplies were transferred to barges for transit to the Belgian villages and towns. By the end of April, the Belgian bakers were able to bake bread from the flour and the local population could taste the good gifts that the people of the state of Ohio had given for a second time.

Original flour sack Bakoto Flour, Canton Feed & M’L’G Co., Canton, Ohio, 1915. Photo: US Embassy in Belgium

With the emptied flour sacks, the Belgian women and girls could continue with their charitable work, transforming them into souvenirs.

Nine embroidered sacks, presumably from the State Ship Ohio, have been preserved.

  • A sack of “Bakoto Flour” from Bako Mills, Canton Feed and M’L’G Co., Canton, is in the Embassy of the United States of America in Belgium in Brussels[5];
  • Three preserved “Square Deal” sacks from The Gwinn Milling Co., Columbus are in the Musée de la Vie wallonne in Liège (one embroidered, one original), respectively in Mons Memorial Museum in Mons (one embroidered);
  • Decorated flour sack “Square Deal”, The Gwinn Milling Co., Columbus, Ohio, 1915/16. Coll. Musée de la Vie wallonne
  • Detail original flour sack “The Famous White Loaf”, Sunbury Mills. Coll. RAHM Tx 2648 ; photo: author

    Five flour sacks “The Famous White Loaf Roller Flour” by Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, are preserved in both a private collection in Belgium (98 Lbs) and in the United Kingdom (49 Lbs) (both embroidered): at the In Flanders Fields Museum (IFFM), Ypres (98 Lbs, embroidered, panel in folding screen); at the Royal Art & History Museum (RAHM), Brussels (49 Lbs, original sack, Tx 2648); at Hoover Institution Archives, Palo Alto, Ca. (24 1/2 Lbs embroidered).

Burrer Mills, Sunbury, 1929; photo:

Sunbury Mills, G. J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, Ohio
The history of the Sunbury Mills mill is detailed on the website of the Big Walnut Historical Society located at the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury.
Gottleib Jacob (Jakie) Burrer (Germany, 03.01.1848 – Sunbury 18.02.1926) owned Sunbury Mills since 1875. It was a family business. He was married to Amy Ann Gammill; their sons Karl (age in 1914: 35), Paul (28), Rudolph (26) and Gordon (20) worked in the expanding business (including electricity generation and supply), which meant a lot to Sunbury. Sunbury Mills has been the longest operating mill in Sunbury. In 1945 the mill, which had meanwhile merged with the Condit Elevators, was sold to the Farm Bureau.

Charlotte Burrer, née Pagels: American Flour Sack Embroiderer in Ohio
The youngest Burrer son, Gordon Jacob (Sunbury 02.02.1894 – Pleasant Ridge, Ohio, 04.07.1960) is a war veteran. He served in World War I, in 1917/18, as a captain in the US Army Infantry.
At the age of 35 he married Charlotte Grace Pagels (1895 – Hamilton, Ohio, July 2, 1991); they married on October 3,1929 at Pleasant Ridge, near Cincinnati. They had three children: Charlotte Amy, Gordon Jacob and Frederick Pagels. Charlotte Pagels Burrer’s grandparents had been German emigrants.

Hoover Tower, 1941; photo: HIA

Charlotte deserves eternal glory for embroidering a Sunbury Mills flour sack! Yes, a flour sack “The Famous White Loaf Roller Flour” by Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury.
In which year she embroidered the flour sack I do not know, but it seems she produced the embroidery after a visit to the Hoover Tower at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California[6]. She became acquainted with the collection of decorated flour sacks in the archives of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, kept in the Hoover Institution Archives and was surprised to see an embroidered flour sack “White Loaf” from Sunbury Mills.

Decorated flour sack “White Loaf”, Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, Ohio. Embroidered in Belgium in 1915/16. Was a model for a replica of Ch. Pagel’s Burrer. Coll. Hoover Institution Archives

It inspired Charlotte to embroider exactly such a flour sack.

Embroidered Flour sack “White Loaf”, Sunbury Mills, Sunbury, Ohio. Replica of flour sack in Hoover Institution Archives. Embroiderer Charlotte Burrer, née Pagels, Cincinnati, Ohio. Coll. and photo: Community Library, Sunbury

Back home in Ohio, she looked for a flour sack printed with the “White Loaf” brand at Sunbury Mills and got to work. A so-called ‘Replica’ of the flour sacks decorated in Belgium during WW I was born; it is proudly preserved in Sunbury’s Community Library.
Former Sunbury librarian, Mrs. Polly Horn, is now curator of the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury. She published a photo of Charlotte’s embroidered flour sack in her “Burrer Mills” blog. Thanks to her I came into possession of a photo of this embroidery by an American flour sack embroiderer: Charlotte Pagels Burrer.

Embroidery of flour sacks in WW I: getting started

American booklet about the “Embroidered Belgian Flour Sacks” with embroidery patterns and detailed descriptions. Photo: Giftshop HHPLM

The embroidery of flour sacks in times of war and occupation has been a remarkable undertaking by Belgian women and girls in 1915/16. The recognition for their special work is recorded in the American booklet “Out of War. A Legacy of Art”.[7]

The publication came about as a group project from the Red Cedar Questers, Iowa. Belle Walton Hinkhouse took the initiative and Joanne Evans Hemmingway led the project to bring about the release.

Central to the book is the collection of decorated flour sacks from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa. Former curator Phyllis Foster Danks of the museum (circa 1977-1986) contributed with her expertise on the “Embroidered Belgian Flour Sacks”.

Embroidery pattern “Viking ship” with description in the American booklet about the “Embroidered Belgian Flour Sacks” (HHPL 62.4.401)

Two experienced embroidery teachers, Catherine Robinder and Angeline Hoover Shuh, analyzed the embroidery on the flour sacks.

Embroidery pattern “Bluebird” with description in the American booklet about the ‘Embroidered Belgian Flour Sacks’. (HHPL 62.4.432)

They concentrated on decorations added by the Belgian women themselves and chose six copies for a reconstruction. The result are six embroidery patterns with detailed descriptions of threads used and embroidery stitches. Embroiderers receive instructions on which cloth to use for the pattern: you could use a sack, but that’s not necessary.
The embroidery patterns are:

  • Woman and sheep
  • Flemish scene
  • Viking ship
  • Bluebirds
  • Violets
  • Poppies


Anyone who wants to, can get started! Just like Charlotte Grace Pagel’s Burrer did embroidering her Sunbury flour sack.

Decorated flour sacks can inspire even more creative crafts!

Embroidered flour sack “White Loaf”, Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, Ohio, 1915. Private coll. United Kingdom
Embroidered flour sack “White Loaf”, Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, Ohio, 1915/16. Private coll. Belgium










Embroidered flour sack ”White Loaf”, Sunbury Mills, G.J. Burrer & Sons, Sunbury, Ohio, 1915/16. Panel in folding screen. Coll. IFFM

Thanks to:
– Mrs. Polly Horn, curator of the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury, Ohio, for the wealth of information she sent me about the Sunbury Mill and the Burrer family. She is the author of dozens of blogs on the Big Walnut Area Historical Society.
Watch my program at YouTube:  “Decorated Flour Sacks in WWI. From Aid to Embroidery in Ohio”.
Program of the Big Walnut Area Historical Society, Ohio. Mrs. Polly Horn, director of the Myers Inn Museum in Sunbury invited me to develop this presentation. Enjoy!
– Mrs. Cheryl Ogden, director, and Megan, intern, of the Champaign County Historical Society Museum;
– Hubert Bovens from Wilsele, Belgium, for researching the biographical data of photographer Leon van Loo.

[1] The Tribune, Coshocton, Ohio, October 22, 1914

[2] Edgar, William C., ‘The Millers’ Belgian Relief Movement 1914-15 conducted by The Northwestern Miller. Final Report of its director William C. Edgar, Editor of the Northwestern Miller, MCMXV’. Minneapolis, Minn. USA, 1915

[3] Gille, Louis, Ooms, Alphonse, Delandsheere, Paul, Cinquante Mois d’Occupation Allemande. Volume I 1914-1915. Brussels: Librairie Albert Dewit, 1919

[4] Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, 9 maart 1915

[5] The US Ambassador, Mr. Gidwitz, showed the flour sack during a recorded message at the online opening of the exhibition ‘When Minnesota Fed the European Children’ on October 12, 2020. Here the link to the YouTube recording of the opening, the American ambassador speaks 4 minutes: you can find it between 3.30 and 7.50 min.

[6] The two black and white photographs of Hoover Tower and the embroidered Sunbury Mills flour sack in HIA are from the book: Danielson, Elena S., Hoover Tower at Stanford University. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2018

[7] Hemingway, Joanne, Hinkhouse, Belle, Out of War. A Legacy of Art. West Branch, Iowa: Iowa State Questors, 1995.

“Out of War. A Legacy of Art” is available for purchase for $9.95 in the Gift Shop of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa, USA.




“Rooster on an oak branch at dawn”: Piet Van Engelen in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

A decorated WWI flour sack designed by Belgian artist Piet Van Engelen is part of the collection of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, United States.
The work by Van Engelen – a powerful symbol of a rooster on an oak branch, claiming its territory, guarding the crowned shield of Belgium, while behind him the sun rises accompanied by a bald eagle – served as a pattern for embroidery.
This resulted in a decorated flour sack of a special nature: the flagship of the decorated flour sacks.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa, USA. Photo: online

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (HHPL) opened in 1962 and is dedicated to Herbert Hoover’s presidency (West Branch, Iowa, 08/10/1874 – New York, NY, 10/20/1964). He was the 31st President of the United States, his term of office ran from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933.

Herbert Hoover’s Birthplace in Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, West Branch, Iowa, USA. Photo: online

The library is the building where archival material of the former president is stored. The museum tells the story of the president’s life and the time in which he governed. The library is located on the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in his hometown of West Branch, Iowa, which houses his birthplace and burials of both Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover. The HHPL was established under the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 and is administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.
Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) archives and memorabilia (souvenir gifts, including the decorated flour sacks) were originally kept at the Hoover Institution Archives (HIA) at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. With the opening of HHPL, Herbert Hoover had taken the opportunity to transfer some of his memorabilia to West Branch.

Iowa City Press Citizen, August 5, 1974: “Museum: a pleasant history lesson”

It is my understanding that over 400 decorated flour sacks from WWI were part of that move. This meant that the collection of flour sacks in the CRB’s archives would have been split into two parts by 1962: one quarter remained with HIA in California and three quarters came under the management of HHPL in Iowa. This means that the largest collection of decorated flour sacks in the world is located in West Branch. Thanks to HHPL’s presidential status and museum function, the decorated flour sacks have regularly attracted attention since 1962.

The Gazette, August 16, 2008
The Spokesman Review, November 15, 2008

Decorated flour sacks can always be viewed in the museum, with the exhibited collection changing every six months.
Researchers and enthusiasts of decorated flour sacks enjoy visiting the library and museum. The current curator, Marcus Eckhardt, has welcomed many researchers and, where possible, providing them an individual showing of decorated flour sacks.

I myself have not been there yet. My visit, made possible in part by a Travel Grant awarded by the Hoover Presidential Foundation, was scheduled for April 2020, but had to be postponed due to travel restrictions and library and museum closures since March 14, 2020 due to the coronavirus.

Piet Van Engelen

Belgian artist Piet Van Engelen. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Piet Van Engelen (Lier 12.05.1863 – Antwerp 17.10.1924) is educated in Wallonia and in Flanders; he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Liège with P. Drion and the Academy of Fine Arts of Antwerp with Charles Verlat. During the Great War he lived in Antwerp. From 1897 he became a teacher at the Academy in Antwerp.
Piet Van Engelen mainly focused on animal painting.

Piet Van Engelen, Rooster and hen “Lune de miel” (“moon of honey“), painting. Photo: online

Initially the images were purely decorative and conceived as still life. His works gradually became more lively by depicting folk proverbs, symbols, etc.” (Piron 2016)


Decorated flour sack “Rooster on an oak branch at dawn”, design Piet Van Engelen, 1916; embroidery Ouvroir d’Anvers, Antwerp. Courtesy Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Decorated flour sack HHPL inv. no. 62.4.447
The representation on the flour sack is a powerful symbol of the dawn. A rooster in colorful plumage towers high on the branch of an oak tree, a symbol of strength, and crows its morning greeting with its beak spread open. The crowned shield of Belgium is central between its legs. A ribbon flows between the oak leaves bearing the words “To Brave Belgium”.

The original print on the sack, the three letters “A.B.C.” in a rectangular frame, are interlaced with ripe stalks of grain.

Detail of the decorated flour sack: the sun and American eagle with spread wings and shield rise behind the rooster and lion. Coll. HHPL; photo: Callens/Magniette

The sun rises in golden yellow behind the composition. On close inspection, the viewer sees the bald eagle, a stalk of grain in its beak, with spread wings and American shield, rising up in the rising sun.

Detail of the decorated flour sack: tribute to Herbert C. Hoover, executed in the Ouvroir d’Anvers, Antwerp, 1916. Coll. HHPL; photo: Callens/Magniette

At the top right of the canvas a “scroll” with text can be seen. The text is a tribute to Herbert C. Hoover, director of the CRB, from the Ouvroir d’Anvers, Antwerp:
‘Hommage de reconnaissance
Monsieur Herbert C. Hoover
Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium
Ouvroir d’Anvers 1916’
This part could have been added later, because it gives the impression that it is not an essential part of the composition of Van Engelen’s design.

Detail of the decorated flour sack: signature “Piet van Engelen, A. 1916”. The light blue pattern drawing of the grain stalks is visible on the canvas. Coll. HHPL; photo: Callens/Magniette

At the bottom left is the signature “Piet van Engelen, A. 1916” in black ink.
I presume the capital letter “A” stands for Antwerp.

The surprise of the decorated flour sack
From a distance, such as in this photo, Van Engelen’s flour sack looks like a painting, having been brushed on canvas. The surprise is that the image was actually embroidered, threaded through the cloth with needle and thread, executed by one or a few experienced and professional embroiderers!

Usually, professional embroiderers worked on embroidery with religious subjects, on banners, on furniture and clothing for the highest classes.

Guy Delmarcel described the flour sack in 2013 as follows: “... a beautifully embroidered allegory, a “Belgian” rooster with the inscription “To brave Belgium“, which according to a French text at the top right was commissioned by the Antwerp department of the CSA. The work is signed in pen by Piet Van Engelen (1863-1924), a meritorious animal painter from Lier, who provided the design (inv. 62-4-447; fig. 21).” [1]

How did Van Engelen find embroiderers to execute his design? We can learn more from an American primary source.

Charlotte Kellogg in Antwerp

Ouvroir d’Anvers, Antwerp, iconic overview photo from the gallery, 1915. Photo: E.E. Hunt, “War Bread”

Charlotte Kellogg, née Hoffman (Grand Island, Nebraska, May 21, 1874 – Monterey, California, May 8, 1960), CRB delegate – unique as the only woman – stayed in Belgium between July and November 1916. She was an eyewitness to the creation of Piet van Engelen’s artwork. She described her visit to the Ouvroir d’Anvers in Antwerp in her book “Women of Belgium”. [2]
“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.

Piet van Engelen did not have to look for embroiderers as performers of his work; on the contrary, he was commissioned to make designs for embroidery, to be executed by embroiderers from the Ouvroir d’Anvers. His design was on the easel during Kellogg’s visit in the summer of 1916.
The pattern of the design has been drawn on the flour sack, the drawing lines are still visible in some places. The yarns were selected, the colors of the yarns were chosen according to the colors of the design. The embroiderer went to work with precise instructions on which embroidery stitches to use. During the creation process there would have been regular consultation about the colors and the direction of the stitches.

Detail of the decorated flour sack: the rooster and the crowned shield of Belgium. Courtesy Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Since the first encounter with images of Piet van Engelen’s decorated flour sack, I have wondered which interpretation he wanted to provide with his use of the “Belgian rooster”. Was the rooster in its scene an allegory or a national symbol?

My impression is that Van Engelen painted an allegory of a “rooster on an oak branch at dawn”. He was an avid painter of the animals that surrounded people, present in the house and garden, chickens and roosters in particular.

Piet van Engelen, “Rooster and chickens”, photo: online

Roosters have a strong natural territorial drive. They puff up their chests and defend the chickens against much bigger enemies. The rooster claims its territory by crowing. The artist knew the great power of the symbol of the rooster better than anyone else. Moreover, in the image of the rooster, Van Engelen must have felt free in his expression, he knew the animal, it was his own, he could put a range of colors and shine in the plumage. He placed the rooster proudly on the thick branch of an oak, the oak leaves colorfully executed. The oak added meaning to the allegory as a symbol of protection, fortitude, courage and strength.
Van Engelen sealed his allegory with the dedication written on the ribbon: “To brave Belgium”.

It does not seem plausible that Van Engelen depicted the rooster as a national symbol for Belgium. He was a Flemish artist who made designs for the Ouvroir in Antwerp, which was under the protection of the Antwerp provincial relief committee, the Comité provincial de Secours et d’Alimentation.
Flanders has a flag with a black lion, on the shield of Belgium is a climbing lion in gold. Wallonia indeed has a flag with a rooster. As a skilled painter of animal figures, Van Engelen would have depicted a lion rather than a rooster, if it were national symbolism.

Other designers also used the rooster in their work in the period ’14-18, for example this design in needlepoint lace.

The design of a rooster in needlepoint lace. Photo: E. McMillan

Milling company
Which mill has filled the sack with flour and had it shipped from the U.S. to Belgium?
Unfortunately, this is not (yet) known. There is no clearly printed name of the mill; in one photo I think I see a glimpse of large capital letters flashing on the underside of the canvas. Hopefully they can be used to clarify the origins of the sack in the future.

The original print A.B.C.

Detail of the decorated flour sack: original print “A.B.C.” Coll. HHPL; photo: Callens/Magniette

The original print, the letters “A.B.C.” in a rectangle of thick edges, was painted over on Van Engelen’s flour sack, but it was not embroidered. Originally the letters were blue, the print was painted over with violet.

“A.B.C.” on flour sack “Gold Medal”. Coll. IFFM 001646; photo: author

That abbreviation “A.B.C.” has a meaning that continues to puzzle me. Numerous flour sacks are printed with “A.B.C.”. Even more flour sacks have been stamped before leaving the U.S. with the letters “A.B.C.”.

“A.B.C.” stamp on flour sack “Perfect”/G. Devreese. Coll. KMKG-MRAH Tx 262; photo: author

I suspected the acronym “American Belgian Commission” or “American Belgian Consul”. I have not been able to find evidence for it.
The first option I did find was the abbreviation “A.B.C.” for “American Bakers Council”, an American quality certificate for flour supplied to bakeries by the mills.
However, this seems unlikely as boxes containing other types of U.S. relief supplies have also been stamped “A.B.C.”.

Children’s shoes in New York, destined for Belgium. Mrs. Price Post *) adjusted the shoes on American children before shipment. The box bears the stamp “A.B.C.” on the side. Photo: Courtesy Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
The Oregon Daily Journal, January 31, 1915

A second option is therefore the abbreviation “A.B.C.” for “American Belgian relief Committee“. The Oregon Daily Journal in Portland, Oregon, made this statement on January 31, 1915: The Oregon Belgian Relief Committee and its Advisory Board had finished their work, reporting their work to the Governor of the State of Oregon. Afterwards, they still received gifts and would forward them to what they called the “American Belgian relief committee” (“A.B.C.”?!) in New York.

Advertisement of Annan, Burg & Company mill in St. Louis, Missouri, in their logo they use the letters A.B.C. Source: Northwestern Miller, January 13, 1915; photo: E. McMillan

Option three was suggested to me by Evelyn McMillan: the Annan, Burg & Company mill in St. Louis, Missouri ran “A.B.C.” in their logo, the abbreviation of the company name in advertisements in the Northwestern Miller between 1910 and 1915. However, this logo cannot sufficiently explain the prints “A.B.C.” on flour sacks from other mills or those on other relief products.

Addition June 6, 2021: ‘Plain cotton sacks with the letters A B C’
The puzzle of the letters ‘ABC’ has been partially solved. It has been an instruction from the CRB office in New York. This is apparent from the following newspaper report from Ohio, where the local Belgian relief committee in Greenville had to repack the flour in plain cotton sacks printed with the letters A B C on them:

Greenville Daily Tribune, Ohio, 30 december 1914

But, alas, the meaning of the three letters is unknown!?!

Greenville Daily Tribune, Ohio, 30 december 1914

Family Van Engelen

Louis Van Engelen, “Sunday afternoon at Sint-Anneke”, 1887. Belgian private collection; photo: website Museum Vleeshuis, Antwerp

Besides Piet Van Engelen, other members of the Van Engelen family were also at the forefront of Antwerp cultural life. Elder brother Louis Van Engelen (Lier 17.01.1856 – Antwerp 14.10.1941) was a painter, he completed landscapes, animals, portraits and genre scenes and often worked in large format.
Museum Vleeshuis in Antwerp is currently showing his painting “Sunday Afternoon on Sint-Anneke“, 1887. He has depicted his brother Piet in the middle of the company in the painting.

Grandfather François Joseph Van Engelen (1785-1853) had founded a workshop for brass instruments in Lier in 1813. The studio grew into perhaps the largest Belgian producer of these musical instruments. Part of the contents of the old workshops are part of a permanent installation in the basement of Museum Vleeshuis.


Decorated flour sack “Rooster on an oak branch at dawn”, design Piet Van Engelen, 1916. Coll. HHPL; photo: E. McMillan

Piet Van Engelen’s decorated flour sack “Rooster on an oak branch at dawn” in the collection of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is a unique work of art in both design and execution, created in the Ouvroir of Antwerp, by experienced and professional embroiderers. It is a powerful allegory. It has been dedicated to Herbert C. Hoover, director of the Commission for Relief in Belgium.

We can speak of “the flagship of the decorated flour sacks”.



*) Addition courtesy of Evelyn McMillan:
Mrs. Emily Price Post (1872-1960) was a prominent New York society woman in the early 1900s. In 1922, at the age of 50, she published the book ‘Etiquette’ about manners and etiquette under het author’s name Emily Post, making it famous to this day! See the ‘Emily Post Institute‘. To my Dutch readers: she was the American Amy Groskamp-ten Have from ‘Hoe hoort het eigenlijk’, but her book did not appear until 1939.

Thanks to:
– Marcus Eckhardt, Curator of Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum;
– Evelyn McMillan; Mauro Callens and Audrey Magniette; they provided me with photos they took during a visit to HHPL;
– Hubert Bovens for the biographical research of the artists.

 [1] Delmarcel, Guy, Pride of Niagara. Best Winter Wheat. Amerikaanse Meelzakken als textiele getuigen van Wereldoorlog I (American Flour Sacks as textile witnesses of World War I). Brussels, Parc Cinquantenaire: Bulletin of the Museum Art and History, volume 84, 2013, p. 97-126

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

Nieuwjaar 2021 New Year

Zakken vol herinneringen

Annelien van Kempen, 2020. Buidels: recycled windscherm, band; stukjes Waddenzeeglas verzameld door Anneke Lanting

spoelden aan
op ‘t strand,
in zand en golven.

De zilte zee
zong zacht
van het leven
nu en later,
wij allen verbonden
door haar water.

Dansende zakjes zeeglas
nemen ons thuis
mee op reis.

Gelukkig 2021!


Sacks full of memories

Annelien van Kempen, 2020. Sacks: recycled windshield, strap; pieces of Wadden Sea glass collected by Anneke Lanting

washed up
on the beach,
by sand and waves.

The salty sea
sang softly
of life
now and later,
all of us connected
through her water.

Dancing sacks
filled with sea glass

take us on their journey,
while we stay at home.

Happy 2021!


Annelien van Kempen, December 2020

Round trip Kansas-Limburg in seven steps

At the end of the year 2020, in which travelling for people became increasingly difficult due to the measures against the corona virus, I would like to tell you about the journey of flour sacks from the state of Kansas in the US to the province of Limburg in Belgium and back: Kansas-Limburg in seven steps.

The flour sack journey from Kansas to Limburg and vice versa took place in fifteen months, between November 1914 and February 1916.

1) In November and December 1914, the Kansas Belgian Relief Fund, led by former Governor W.R. Stubbs, collected money for relief supplies to be sent to the population of occupied Belgium. The committee used the gifts to purchase flour from local mills to a total value of $ 400,000.

Railroad car with inscription “Kansas Flour for Belgium Relief, Topeka, Kan.” Photo: National WWI Museum, Kansas City, Missouri

The cargo went by railroad to New York Harbor, there were 150 railroad cars loaded with 50,000 barrels of flour, the equivalent of about 200,000 sacks of flour.


Departure of SS Hannah from New York. Photo: The Topeka Daily Capital Sun, January 10, 1915

2) On January 5, 1915, steamship Hannah, loaded with the relief goods collected by the people of Kansas, left New York Harbor.
The ship was waved goodbye by hundreds of people. The Kansas delegation at the harbor consisted of 50 people.

Josephine Bates-White hoists the flag in the top. Photo: NYT, January 17, 1915
Josephine Bates, née White. Photo: online

Mrs. Josephine Bates, neé White (Portage-du-Fort, Québec, Canada, 08.07.1862 – Yorktown, New York, USA, 20.10.1934), together with the captain of the ship, hoisted the flag from the mast.
Josephine Bates was known by her husband’s name as Mrs. Lindon W. Bates. She was the Chairwoman of the Woman’s Section of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB).

The Woman’s Section was founded in New York in November 1914 with the aim of bringing all women’s organizations in the US under one umbrella to coordinate their many lavish relief efforts for Belgium.

The Woman’s Section of the CRB. Photo: The History of the Woman’s Section, February 26, 1915
Ida M. Walker, née Abrahams , Chairwoman of the CRB Woman’s Section for the State of Kansas. Photo: online

The Chairwoman of the Woman’s Section for the State of Kansas was Ms. Ida M. Walker, née Abrahams (Kansas, USA, 2/22/1886 – Norton, Kansas, USA, 6/18/1968). She continued the fundraising campaigns for Belgium even after the departure of the Hannah. In May 1915 she campaigned for the collection of 10,000 food boxes and repeated this in December as a Christmas campaign.



The Topeka Daily State Journal, May 4, 1915

3) On January 27, 1915, SS Hannah moored in the Maashaven in Rotterdam. Transshipment of relief goods in inland vessels for transit to the provinces in Belgium started immediately. The ships run fixed routes to the Belgian cities and villages.

New Britain Daily Herald, February 27, 1915

The distribution of the relief supplies was overseen by Mr. Charles F. Scott of Iola, Kansas, farmer’s son, owner of The Iola Daily Register newspaper and former Kansas State MP.

May Scott, née Ewing. Youth photo: online

He was married to May Ewing Scott, a politically active woman. Scott had come over specifically for this purpose at the insistence of the CRB. He traveled at his own expense and risk, a significant detail, as a competing newspaper spread falsehoods by stating that Scott used the Kansas people’s money raised for Belgium for his “jaunt.”
Thanks to Scott’s report of his journey by telegram dated February 8, 1915 from London, it was announced in Kansas that the cargo of the Hannah had arrived in good order with the Belgian population. Scott was back in Kansas in late February, providing a vivid account of his journey at the Auditorium in the capital, Topeka, on March 10, 1915, before an audience of nearly 2,000. His visit to Cardinal Mercier in Malines made a big impression. In the months that followed, Scott had a full schedule of lectures about his trip and reached a large audience.

The Food Committee of Tessenderloo, province of Limburg, Belgium, with CRB-delegate Tracey Kittredge. Photo: “In Occupied Belgium”, Robert Withington, 1922
Decorated flour sack “Blue Bell”’, Russell Milling Co.; embroidered by Caroline Gielen, Bilzen, Belgium. Coll. and photo: KSHS

4) Meanwhile in Limburg the sacks of flour had been emptied at the bakeries and handed over to charity organizations and (monastery) schools. Embroiderers went to work decorating Kansas’ flour sacks, in Bilzen, Hasselt, Hoesselt, Lommel and Neerpelt, among others.

– Caroline Gielen (Bilzen, 28.01.1888) in Bilzen was 27 years old in 1915. She embroidered a flour sack “Blue Bell” from Russell Milling Company, Russell, with the text “God bless you” and an appliqué American flag. She applied a wide strip of ribbon, hand-painted with golden sheaves of grain, all around.
Caroline’s father, Charles Gielen (Bilzen 23.03.1847 – Bilzen 01-01-1926), was a member of the “Permanent Deputation” (now “Deputation“), the executive body of the province of Limburg. Her mother was Marie Jeannette Georgine Robertine Gielen (Bilzen 07.06.1859 – Bilzen 09.11.1937).

Decorated flour sack “Riley County”; embroidered by Angèle Veltkamp, ​​Hasselt. Coll. and photo: KSHS

– Angèle Veltkamp (Hasselt 18.05.1898 – Embourg 31.10.1975) in Hasselt was 17 years old in 1915. She worked on a flour sack “Kansas Flour for Relief in Belgium” by the residents of Riley County, filled up with flour by The Manhattan Milling Co., Manhattan. With shiny silk threads she embroidered the small coat of arms of Belgium with the motto “L’union fait la force” (“Unity is strength”) and the Order of Leopold. “Reconnaissance à L’Amérique” (“Gratitude to America”) is in an arc over the coat of arms, the years 1914-1915 and the name of the municipality “Hasselt”. The flour sack is unfolded and edged with red, yellow and black string. In the middle is an artful bow with a red, yellow and black ribbon.
After the war, Angèle Veltkamp married Maurice Schuermans on 27 September 1919 in Elen (Sint-Gillis 17.02.1889 – Luik 22.01.1976); he was an aeronautical engineer.

Decorated “Pawnee County” flour sack; embroidered by Orphanage Hoesselt. Coll. and photo: KSHS

– The “Orphanage” in Hoeselt embroidered a flour sack from Pawnee County. They cut the sack into strips and put a wide edge of bobbin lace between and around it. The embroidered text read: “From Pawnee County 1000 sacks Flour 1914 donated 1915 to Belgium Sufferers Remembrance Orphanage Hoesselt Kansas U.S.A.”

– The Orphelinat St. Joseph of the Réligieuses de la Providence (Orphanage St. Joseph of the Sisters of Providence) in Hoeselt embroidered a flour sack from the mill D. Gerster, Burlington with the brand name ”Excelsior-Water Mill-Victor”. A banner bore the text “Dieu bénisse nos Bienfaiteurs” (“God bless our benefactors”). The flags of Belgium, France and the US were added. A ribbon in red, yellow and black bordered the flour sack.

Embroidered flour sack ‘Victor’ , D. Gerster, Burlington; embroidery by Orphelinat, Hoesselt. Coll. and photo: KSHS
Decorated flour sack “Kaw Flour”, Kaw Milling Co. (verso); embroidered by Gabriëlle Tournier, Lommel. Coll. and photo: KSHS

– Gabriëlle Tournier (Lommel 17.03.1898 – Hasselt 13.06.1971) in Lommel was 17 years old in 1915. She transformed a flour sack from Kaw Milling Co., Topeka, into a cushion cover with a red, yellow and black ribbon and a border of golden yellow ribbon. The flour sack, originally printed on both sides, has the brand name “Perfection Flour” on one side, with an image of an eagle with open wings and grain stalks between its legs.

Decorated flour sack “Kaw Flour”, Kaw Milling Co. (recto); embroidered by Gabriëlle Tournier, Lommel. Coll. and photo: KSHS

The other side bears a smaller bird as a logo. It is embroidered in blue and white bordered by stalks of grain. Underneath an appliqué with an embroidered Belgian flag and “L’Union fait la Force”. The brand name “Kaw” refers to the river Kaw, also known as the “Kansas river”.
Gabriëlle Tournier married Joseph Clercx (Neerpelt 23.02.1894 – Hasselt 26.06.1991), Veteran 1914-1918; Croix de guerre (“Cross of War”) 1914-1918. They had six children, two daughters and four sons.


Decorated flour sack from Imboden Milling Co.; embroidered in Neerpelt. Coll. and photo: KSHS

– In Neerpelt there is a flour sack from the Imboden Milling Company, Wichita, embroidered by Maria Moonen with the text “Merci à l’Amérique” with the Belgian and American flags and a bow in red, yellow and black. A ribbon in the colors of the American flag is woven through the fabric. The sack is edged with a wide bobbin lace rim.


Decorated flour sack Kiowa Milling Co., Prop’s, Kiowa (recto); name embroiderer unknown. Coll. and photo: KSHS

– A flour sack from Kiowa Milling Co., Prop’s, Kiowa, is embroidered by an unknown embroiderer (Madame Jean Noots?). All printed letters and the logo are over-embroidered in the colors red, yellow, black, with blue and gold. The sack is originally printed on both sides. The worker of the flour sack has finished the edges with gold-colored fringed straps, fastened with threads in red, yellow and black.

Decorated flour sack Kiowa Milling Co., Prop’s, Kiowa (recto); name embroiderer unknown. Coll. and photo: KSHS




5) Autumn 1915 a series of decorated flour sacks, including the Limburg embroidery works described above, was given as a gift to CRB delegates as thanks for the food relief. The decorated flour sacks have been transported from Brussels to Rotterdam and from there to the CRB office in London.

Stella Stubbs, née Hostetler, the wife of ex-gov. W.R. Stubbs. Photo: online

In London, Millard K. Shaler, secretary of the CRB, commissioned seven Kansas flour sacks to ex-gov. Stubbs from the Kansas Belgian Relief Fund in Topeka and included a thank you letter.

The Topeka Daily Capital, February 6, 1916

6) In February 1916, the seven decorated Kansas flour sacks arrived via Mr. Stubbs at Secretary Dillon of the Kansas Belgian Relief Fund in Topeka. On February 6, The Topeka Daily Capital published an article under the headline “Belgian Children Embroider Flour Sacks from Kansas”, featuring a photo of four of the seven flour sacks. The caption read “Kansas Flour Sacks Embroidered by Appreciative Belgians Whose Lives Were Saved by the Generosity of Charitable Kansans”.

Advertisement mentions the flour sacks display in The Mills Stores Company’s window display. The Topeka Daily State Journal, February 7, 1916

The decorated flour sacks were immediately displayed to the public in a shop window in the center of the city. They then moved to the State Historical Building in Topeka to be preserved “as a lasting memento of the great European war and Kansas’s part in helping the Belgians.”

Collection of seven decorated flour sacks at the Kansas Museum of History. Photos: KSHS; collage Annelien van Kempen

7) Today the seven decorated flour sacks are part of the Kansas History Museum collection of the Kansas Historical Society. At the time, the Historical Society received the flour sacks from the Kansas Belgian Relief Fund.

Stadsmus Hasselt, “The taste of war”, February 2015. Photo: website Sint Willibrordus school, Eisden-Maasmechelen, Belgium

In February 2015, the Riley County embroidered flour sack, embroidered by Angèle Veltkamp for the municipality of Hasselt, returned temporarily to Belgium. The Kansas History Museum lent the memento to the “Stadsmus”, the city museum of Hasselt, for the exhibition “The taste of war”.

As a result, this decorated flour sack once again, one hundred years later, made the “Round trip Kansas-Limburg”, though this time directly.

Round trip Kansas-Limburg in seven steps. Timeline design: Annelien van Kempen


Special thanks to Hubert Bovens, Wilsele, Belgium, specialized in researching the biographical data of artists, for the research of the biographical data of the three Limburg embroiderers Caroline Gielen, Angèle Veltkamp and Gabriëlle Tournier. Special thanks to Michaël Closquet from Rocourt; he provided the dates of death of both Angèle Veltkamp and her husband Maurice Schuermans.


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 (born in Malazen 22.01.1898) was the daughter of butcher Jan Baptiste Brankaer and Maria Lamal. They lived in Steenweg Terhulpen 35. Maria was 17 years old when she embroidered the flour sack. She 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 [3]

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;
– Hubert Bovens for the search for biographical data of embroiderer Marie Brankaer


[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.
More on their collection in this blog: Ohio: Helping the Belgians

[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”.

[3] In Diane De Keyzer’s book “Nieuwe meesters, magere tijden. Eten en drinken tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog” (New masters, lean times. Eating and drinking during World War I) 14 photos are printed, taken by Louis Rigaux. She quotes on p. 244 from the minutes of the meetings of the Overijssche relief committee, written by the secretary, notary public Goedhuys: “Comité d’alimentation – Procès-verbaux des séances 11.01.1915 – 10.01.1916.

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