Embroidered Flour Sacks
The small European country of Belgium suffered terribly during World War I. One major cause of suffering was the lack of provisions. The Belgians normally imported most of their food. When Germany invaded in the summer of 1914, its soldiers confiscated foodstuffs and then refused to feed the populace. Meanwhile, Great Britain set up a naval blockade halting all imports. By the winter of 1914-1915, it was clear Belgians would starve unless they received outside assistance.
Although the United States remained neutral until the war's final year, American citizens got involved in a major relief effort run by Herbert Hoover (later the country's 31st president). Hoover helped found the Commission for Relief in Belgium, also known as the CRB.
Kansas was one of the most active states responding to the CRB's pleas. Noting the bumper wheat crop of 1914, former Kansas Governor Walter Stubbs rallied Kansans with the slogan, "[From] Kansas, the greatest beneficiary of the war, to Belgium, the greatest sufferer of the war" (Kansas farmers benefited from higher grain prices due to increased wartime demand). By November 1914, Kansans had donated 50,000 barrels of flour to the CRB. Pawnee County alone sent 1,000 sacks, while Burlington residents raised $600 for the purchase of foodstuffs. Some milling companies contributed both money and flour. All told, the state's donation filled the hold of the ship Hannah, which set sail for Belgium the following January. The New York Times described the scene on the docks: "From the aftermast of the ship fluttered the flag of Kansas, while a great streamer that stretched half way around the ship bore the single word 'Kansas'."
After the ship left New York harbor, the CRB monitored its progress through perilous waters where German U-boats might mistake it for a combatant. When the vessel landed in neutral Rotterdam, the cargo had to be unloaded and conveyed to Belgium. Once inside that country's borders, the flour had to be prepared into comestibles and distributed to a hungry populace. The CRB's volunteers repeated this process over and over again for every ship that crossed the Atlantic during the war.
Once in Europe, the rather ordinary cotton sacks containing the donated flour caught the attention of both the Allies and Central Powers. One concern was that the Germans would use the cotton in their munitions plants. Therefore, the CRB controlled even the distribution and location of the flour sacks. Many sacks were recycled into clothing and household items, but some were turned into objects of beauty. Over-stitching the printed mill stamps with colorful silk floss, and adding original designs of their own, Belgian women used their needles to pay a debt of gratitude to those who fed them. They returned the decorated bags to benefactors in the United States.
The Kansas Belgian Relief Fund first began receiving embroidered sacks a year after the Hannah had sailed, in early 1916. In an article noting that the embroidered sacks would be displayed in a downtown store window, the Topeka Daily Capital described the workmanship as "beautiful" and illustrative of "the wonderful talent of the Belgian women and girls, who are world-famous for their laces and embroidery. It is done on the ordinary sacks in which Kansas millers ship their product, and this makes the work even more remarkable."
A few embroiderers of the Kansas sacks are known by name—for example, Gabrielle Tournier and Madame Jean Noots—because they attached cards to their work. The Nuns of Providence, St. Joseph Orphanage, embroidered their vocation on one sack along with the motto, "Dieu bénisse nos Bienfaiceurs" (God blesses our Benefactors). An anonymous needleworker expressed "Merci á l’Amerique" (Thank you, America) on a sack embellished with silk ribbon and delicate lace.
The Kansas Belgian Relief Fund donated many of the embroidered sacks to the Kansas Historical Society following their display in downtown Topeka. They reside in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History as a reminder of Kansans' role in one of the largest relief efforts the world has ever seen.
Entry: Embroidered Flour Sacks
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2011
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.