To me, the WWI decorated flour sacks of the Madame Vandervelde Fund stand out. It makes me happy to know that there was a woman who came to the rescue of the Belgian people with conviction. That woman was Lalla Vandervelde-Speyer (Camberwell, England, April 4, 1870 – Putney, England, November 8, 1965). She is one of the many women who worked determinedly towards her goal: care for destitute Belgian compatriots. Her decorated flour sacks also tell the story of charity, gratitude and food aid.
This is part 2 of a series of three blogs.
(See my blogs: Madame Vandervelde Fund 1 and Madame Vandervelde Fund 3)
In her biography “Monarchs and Millionaires”, published in 1925, Lalla Vandervelde gave her personal impressions of her six-month stay in America in four chapters, totaling 60 pages. I provide an anthology of stories from the book.
In Antwerp, fleeing from the advancing German army, Lalla stayed with her husband at Hotel St. Antoine and experienced an air raid of German Zeppelins for the first time in her life. She was terrified by the sound of falling and detonating bombs.
The following evening she stood in the hotel hallway and met with Mr. E. Alexander Powell, correspondent of the American newspaper “New York World”, who said to her “Why don’t you go over to the States and enlist the sympathy of American women and children for the poor Belgians? ” The suggestion opened her eyes to what she could do, and she immediately took action to realize it. She did not want to embark on the adventure without the consent of the Belgian government, or at least that of Prime Minister Baron de Broqueville, so she visited him and presented her plan. His response was negative: “he liked the idea, but did not approve of a woman going alone on such a hazardous expedition, and so on and so forth”. Disillusioned, she left him, but met King Albert’s private secretary and told him about her plan.
He promised to discuss it with the King and a few hours later he said that King Albert fully agreed with the plan: “He knew what influence women have in America, and sent 4,000 francs towards my traveling expenses.”
Queen Elizabeth in turn instructed a lady-in-waiting to send Madame Vandervelde a letter approving the project, wishing her the best of luck and indicating that she could take the letter with her to read it out in America.
The Belgian Mission (the “Atrocity Commission”) appointed by King Albert, including her husband Emile Vandervelde, left on September 3 with the White Star Liner “Celtic” and arrived in New York on September 12. I have read this in American newspapers. In her biography, Lalla has not written a single word about the mission, not even about her husband.
Because Lalla was not allowed to travel on the same ship – “no women ever, or could, in any circumstances, accompany a diplomatic mission” – it was not easy to book a cabin on the next ship. With the help of British former ambassador to Japan, Sir Claude MacDonald, she managed to leave Liverpool for New York on September 8, 1914 on the White Liner “Cretic”.
The war had raged for over four weeks now and 75 percent of the Belgian territory was in the hands of the Germans. During the ten days at sea, there would be no news reports for the passengers. For Lalla, that felt unbearable, and she got a radio operator to promise to inform her in secret should there be any news to report. On September 14th she received a signal and heard that the Germans had been stopped in their advance in France.
On board she prepared her mission: to evoke sympathy from the Americans by telling them as an eyewitness about the horrors that had taken place in Belgium. She hoped to influence the public opinion and appeal to the well-known generosity of Americans to ease the fate of Belgian refugees. At that time, she did not know that within three months the catastrophe would be much greater and the question was how to feed all the Belgians who lived in occupied territory, this number would grow to 7.5 million people…
She spoke to two fellow travelers, Mr. Augustus Gardner, a member of the United States Congress, and Mr. McEnerney, a highly skilled lawyer from San Francisco, and took their valuable advice on how to frame her propaganda. She realized that she should tell her story in simple terms and without emotion. Only then could she count on support from the people of the US, where many pro-German sentiments were present. The evening before arriving in New York, the captain gave her the opportunity to tell her story on board the ship. She raised an initial amount of $ 360.
In New York City
September 18, 1914, upon arriving from the “Cretic” in New York on a sunny, warm day, she dressed in a colorful summer outfit without thinking about her role. The reaction of a fellow traveler made her realize that her choice of clothing should support her message, so she had her wardrobe dyed black in New York.
Once disembarked, reporters and photographers swarmed around her, but she did not give interviews or comments. She first wanted to speak to the Belgian Relief Committee*) to find out what she could and could not say. The Belgian Consul General, Mr. Mali, picked her up at the port and brought her to her place to stay. The next day, she received a secretary, Miss Conklin, who assisted her for six months.
On September 18th, in the Evening World, the evening edition of the New York World, correspondent Alexander Powell’s newspaper, an article with photo appeared under the headline “Mme. Vandervelde brings note from Queen Elizabeth. Wife of Belgian Minister of State Here to Appeal to Americans. Woman envoy here to appeal for aid for destitute Belgians.”
Travelling in America
Lalla Vandervelde began her adventure, she humorously reports on her visits to millionaires and dignitaries in her book. Her hostesses and hosts have mostly remained anonymous, so she could poke fun at their boredom, their lack of knowledge about culture, their lack of knowledge of international politics, their dependence on staff. In general, she was “full of pity for this poor millionaire”. She also met a young super millionaire who couldn’t give her money. “the money he devoted to charities was managed and distributed by a committee of specialists in economics, in social hygiene or in some other form of benevolence. This struck me as being a logical, if unpleasant, way of distributing riches.”
Another anecdote: “I spoke on that day to a room full of very expensive looking people. The women …, wore the most outrageous clothes. But they were interested, in their own way in the War, and had made it the fashion to knit very brightly-coloured silk scarves to send to the British and French boys at the front. It was maddening to have to speak about the horrors of the War to the clicking of knitting needles…” Then a pug entered the room as it could no longer live without its owner, but it squeaked, barked and ran around, so she had to stop talking until the dog was removed, along with his mistress. Conclusion: “I did not get anything like the money I expected from that rich audience.”
People with small incomes, drivers and servants in restaurants, clothing workers, went out of their way and collected money, which they handed over with a few kind, encouraging words.
Lalla was very pleased with the American female and male journalists and had a good working relationship with them. She recalled a New York dinner party with six female journalists as one of the most interesting experiences during her American stay. “They were eager, tired looking women. Most of them had been married young and badly treated by their husbands, whom they had divorced. This meant poverty, and not infrequently one or two children to bring up. They were very naturally proud at having made a success of life and told me details of the terrible struggles they had gone through. Most of them hated men with an extraordinary active and vital hatred. Only one of them said she was still in love with her husband, but as he was exploiting her, she felt she ought to leave him. She spoke as if she were ashamed of her love and reluctance to be free.
I had never met so many women in the same circumstances. They were not soured or embittered, but proud and happy, especially when they spoke about their children, who were mostly grown up and prepared, through their mothers’ struggles for the battle of life”.
With Lalla’s interest in the role of women, she portrayed American society in late 1914, early 1915: “There is no stigma attached to certain kinds of work, as there was in Europe before the War, and a woman’s scope is infinitely wider than at home.”
Messages in Belgian newspapers
After three months, some Belgian newspapers reported on Madame Vandervelde’s mission. 
“In America – The charitable movement in favor of suffering Belgium is growing daily. This is how Mrs. Lalla Vandervelde, returning to New York from a three-month trip through the United States, brought in donations in kind and in cash for the sum of $ 213,000. She continues her fruitful journey.”
Another article featured the news of a large donation of Buffalo sacks of flour, saying that the sacks were intended for reuse: “Madame Vandervelde, the wife of the Secretary of State, has been in the United States for more than three months. There she gave and gives a series of lectures about Belgium and the horrors of which the country has fallen victim, that have been overwhelmingly successful and in which Belgium and the Belgians have been praised. … After these meetings, donations for families of Belgian victims pour in. Madame Vandervelde has already collected almost 1,400,000 francs!
In Buffalo, industrialists have loaded her with a ship with 10,000 sacks of flour – sacks made of fine cloth and fine fabric, so that they can then be used and transformed into clothes and towels for the Belgians.
Madame Vandervelde was in Boston last week where her lectures were attended by 5,000 people.]
Madame Vandervelde Fund
I became aware of the fund thanks to the WWI decorated flour sacks in museum collections in Belgium and the US, decorated with her name. I therefore asked myself: how large was the organization, who formed the board?
According to Lalla Vandervelde’s biography, she founded the Madame Vandervelde Fund to house the large amounts of collected dollars. However, the structure of the fund was very simple: it consisted of the two-woman organization of Madame herself and her secretary Miss Conklin! Lalla Vandervelde: “I have always been proud to think that we two women, without any committee to back us, organized my campaign, which produced in material things alone 300,000 dollars or, what was at that time, a million and a half francs.”
To be continued.
Read here my blog Madame Vandervelde Fund 3
*) The Belgian Relief Committee: Jeffrey B. Miller mentioned Madame Vandervelde in relation to the Belgian Relief Committee in his first book “Behind the Lines“, Millbrown Press, 2014, at p. 226 en 227:
“The Belgian Relief Committee had been founded in the late summer by a “few modest Belgians and their sympathizers,” according to one magazine article. At its head was Rev. J. F. Stillemans, a Catholic priest of Belgian birth …
Stillemans got involved in trying to help the Belgian refugees and became the president of the Belgian Relief Committee. The chairman of the executive committee, and the real power behind the group, was Robert W. de Forest, the vice president of the American Red Cross. During a vacation in Europe that was interrupted by the start of the war, he had seen the Belgian devastation. When he returned home he started the group outside the confines of the Red Cross. The Belgian members of de Forest’s organization included the Belgian consul in New York, the Belgian minister to the United States, and a well-to-do patron, Madame Vandervelde. …
She had become a darling of New York City, and the country, when she announced she would not go home until she had collected $1 million to aid her country.”
“Sacks are full of memories. Every sack cherishes a precious and vulnerable story.”
My sincere thanks to Dr. Ingrid De Meûter and Ria Cooreman of the Royal Art & History Museum in Brussels. They gave me the opportunity to study the museum’s WWI collection of flour sacks, the so-called “Errera Collection”, which includes two unprocessed flour sacks from the Madame Vandervelde Fund, on February 21, 2020.
 Vandervelde, Lalla, Monarchs and Millionaires. London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1925
 L’écho belge- journal quotidien du matin paraissant à Amsterdam, December 16, 1914
 Le XXsiecle: journal d’union et d’action catholique, January 16, 1915; translated from French