What’s Cooking Wednesday: Flour Sack Art

A flour sack from the collection of the Hoover Presidential Library

One of the themes throughout our “What’s Cooking Wednesday” posts has been war and food rationing. American citizens were asked to grow their own food, ration sugar, and eat less meat so that there would be more supplies for soldiers fighting overseas and for people with little food left in their war-torn country.

As a result, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library has one of the largest collections of flour sacks in the world.

But these are no ordinary flour sacks. These cotton bags have been stenciled, embroidered, painted, and remade. They were  turned into pillows, clothing, and accessories to be sold in England and the United States to raise funds for food relief and to help prisoners of war. They have been decorated with red, yellow, and black for Belgium as well as red, white, and blue for the United States. Lions, eagles, symbols of peace, and Belgian lace decorate the humble cotton from American mills.

Why did hungry Belgium citizens decorate empty flour sacks?

During World War I, Herbert Hoover was chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Through donated money and voluntary contributions of food, this commission fed over 11,000 Belgiums. Between 1914 and 1919, about 697,116,000 pounds of flour was shipped to Belgium.

A soldier buying a souvenir flour sack in a gift shop—note the "Staunton, Va." Hoover Presidential Library # 1919-68.

But once empty, the flour sack was a dangerous commodity during World War I. The German military could use them in producing ammunition. The CRB worried that the sacks would be reused, filled with inferior flour, and sold under false pretenses as relief flour. So each sack was carefully controlled.

The now-empty sacks were sent to schools, convents, and sewing workrooms, where women and girls transformed the sacks into works of art. Hundreds were sent to Herbert Hoover as thanks for the work of the Commission for Relief in Belgium and are now part of the Hoover Presidential Library.

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