“What collections of decorated flour sacks exist in the United States? Can I represent these in figures?” I asked myself, in parallel with the inventory Belgian collections in figures 2022. “Will new insights arise when comparing the American and Belgian data?”
American flour sack = Belgian embroidered flour sack
First of all, a change of perspective seems required. The naming and framing of flour sacks in the US and Belgium is different.
What the Belgians call in Flemish: “Amerikaanse bloemzakken (American flour sacks)” or in French: “Sacs américains (American sacks)”, are known in the US as: “Belgian Relief flour sacks” or “Belgian embroidered flour sacks”.
On my weblog page Museums there is a list of 13 American institutions  in nine states with an estimated 571 decorated WWI flour sacks. This is a listing with numbers kindly provided by the institutions’ staff, plus data I found online.
Two so-called “Hoover” collections stand out numerically, containing 90% of all Belgian Relief flour sacks in the US:
* 350 pieces in Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa (HHPL);
* 160 pieces in Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California (HIA)
Register of WWI Flour Sacks
In my Register of WWI Flour Sacks I have recorded 220 of these 571 decorated flour sacks in American collections; thanks to hundreds of photographs received from collectors and museum curators, I have been able to process the data of these sacks. With 40% of flour sacks registered, there is still much research to be done!
Providing an outline of the American “Belgian decorated flour sacks” collections based on these limited figures is a tricky task, but one I am venturing into to provide direction for my further research.
The comparison with the results of my research in Belgium provides a basis for a first exploration.
American public and private collections
13 public and 11 private collections collectively contain 220 flour sacks, of which 190 (86%) are in public collections and 30 (14%) are in private collections.
The two largest public collections are partially listed in my register: 77 flour sacks of HHPL and 52 flour sacks of HIA.
Decorated flour sacks
In the American collections, 99% of the flour sacks have been decorated. Unworked/unprocessed sacks are an unfamiliar phenomenon; American collectors are amazed at the Belgian collections of unprocessed, original WWI flour sacks.
Painting, embroidery and lace borders are the most important decorations of the flour sacks.
Of the 220 processed objects recorded, 89 flour sacks are painted, 145 sacks are embroidered, at least 15 sacks have bobbin lace or needle lace. Several sacks have undergone multiple treatments, they were first painted, then embroidered and/or fitted with lace.
The origin of flour sacks
The countries of origin of the flour sacks are the United States and Canada. This information is provided by the original printing on the sacks. The indication of origin is sometimes missing, because the original print was cut away when flour sacks were transformed into tapestry, table runner, bag, etc. in Belgium; these sacks are included in the category “Unknown”.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum Collection
HHPL’s collection list includes 350 flour sacks. What stands out numerically in this largest collection?
Counting and creating graphs provided me with new observations that I didn’t make before based on the Belgian collections: the importance of the outward and return journey.
The outward journey and the return journey of the flour sacks
In North America people are curious to know:
– by whom and from where was the sack filled with flour sent from here to Belgium?
– who in Belgium processed the emptied flour sack, who was the embroiderer, the artist, the lace maker and from where in Belgium was the flour sack sent back to the US?
The outward journey: “Belgian Relief” organizations
A rough count conducted into the origin of the HHPL flour sacks shows that approximately 200 flour sacks (55%) bear the printing of a “Belgian Relief” organization.
The shown imprints are ‘American Commission’ (100); ‘Madame Vandervelde Fund (8); ‘ABC-Flour’ (10); ‘Belgian Relief Flour’ (10); ‘Flour. Canada’s Gift’ of ‘Gift from the Motherland’ (60); Rockefeller Foundation (7); ‘War Relief Donation’ (8).
Comparison with Belgian collections: 35% of flour sacks bear an imprint of a “Belgian Relief” organization.
The return trip: Belgian embroidered flour sacks
HHPL curator Marcus Eckhardt classifies the HHPL collection of flour sacks as “Gifted from”, among other criteria. It answers the question: “who in Belgium donated the flour sack to the Commission for Relief in Belgium or sent it back to the US?”
Names of schools and embroiderers on the flour sacks plus attached cards, the signatures of artists, all these details are listed on the collection list and are generally well preserved.
The list shows that of the total collection of 350 flour sacks, almost 200 items (57%) come from girls’ schools in Brussels.
The school of the Sœurs de Notre-Dame in Anderlecht takes the crown: 152 handicrafts made by pupils come from this school; that is 43% of the HHPL collection.
Other Brussels girls’ schools are: Ecole Moyenne-Sint Gillis, (27), Ecole Morichar (10), Ecole Professionnelle Bischoffsheim (4), Ecole Professionnelle d’Ixelles (4), Ecole Professionnelle Couvreur (4), Ecole Professionnelle Funck (2).
Thanks to the cooperation and assistance of many people worldwide, I was able to collect the data of hundreds of decorated Belgian Relief flour sacks preserved in the United States.
Are there more sacks kept in private collections and institutions, hidden in archives, depots, closets, attics, basements?
Further research into the American collections of “Belgian embroidered flour sacks” is needed!
Sacks are full of memories. Every sack houses a fragile and precious story.
Many thanks to:
– Marcus Eckhardt, curator of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, for sharing photographs, information, and providing the museum’s Flour Sack collection list.
– Georgina Kuipers, Jason Raats, Florianne van Kempen and Tamara Raats. With their expert advice and work I have created my “Register of WWI Flour Sacks”.
– Georgina Kuipers for her attentive corrections to the English translations of my blogs.
Notes on the two largest American collections of Belgian Relief flour sacks:
Since 1920 the archives and “memorabilia” (commemorative gifts, including the decorated flour sacks) of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) had been stored in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Ca. (HIA).
In 1962 the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (HHPL) was established in Hoover’s hometown of West Branch, Iowa, and dedicated to the presidency of Herbert Hoover. He was the 31st President of the United States, his term ran from March 4,1929 to March 4, 1933.
When the Presidential Museum was created, the decision was made for some of the CRB’s archives to be transferred from HIA to West Branch. Hundreds of decorated flour sacks were part of that move. In other words, in 1962 the collection of flour sacks in the CRB archives was split into two parts: 70% came under the management of HHPL in Iowa and 30% remained at HIA in California.
Both collections continue to attract public attention to this day, thanks to HHPL’s presidential status and museum function and because of the HIA’s status as a leading institution.
 On my website under “Museums” the numbers of decorated flour sacks in American collections are different because I have discovered new items after writing this blog.
 The embroidery was made by Mary-Jane Durieux. It possibly concerns this young lady: Marie-Jeanne Durieux, ºBrussels 11.04.1893; her parents: mother Marie Everaerts, ºBrussels, father ‘Jean Baptiste’ Léopold Durieux, ºBrussels, furniture maker.
Thanks to Hubert Bovens for these biographical data.