The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum recently acquired a decorative flour sack that came with a two-typed page explanation by Marthe Boel. The name is unfamiliar to most Americans but Boel was a leading feminist in Belgian before and after World War I. She and her husband were imprisoned by the Germans for their activities in the Belgian resistance and were freed because of a prisoner exchange in 1917. She spent the remainder of the war in Switzerland only to return to her homeland in 1919. She continued to have a leading role advancing women’s rights until her death in 1956. Her explanation of the creation of decorating flour sacks expresses both an act of subversion and defiance against German occupation as well as providing an outlet and income for artists and women:
Story of the American Flour Sacks
When America began to send us these blessed flour sacks that saved us from famine, the flour was distributed to the bakers by the National Relief Committee in the sacks themselves. These sacks became the property of the bakers. The Germans seeing all that could be done with these sacks even when emptied of their contents had bought through means of third persons and use them as trench sand bags. Hearing this was so, the National Relief Committee obliged the bakers to bring back the same number of empty sacks as they had received as full. It was then secretly forbidden to the Belgians to sell the sacks then on the market except for such high prices as would make them prohibitive for the Germans. It was then that people began to decorate and embroider the sacks. Soon it became a game of ingenuity. Those that bore inscriptions naturally were the most prized. The Belgians began to collect them and soon we learnt to spell the alphabet of our gratitude to America. Some people mounted them as cushions, purses, portfolios, blotters, made them into linen bags or work bags. At this period there was no home in Belgium, however humble that did not possess one of these sacks, employed in this fashion, “To the greater glory of America.” Later on during the war, all raw material having become scarce, the sacks were employed to make linen: Chemises etc., and being dyed, became such clothing as aprons and children’s frocks.
These special “painted sacks” were started at the beginning of 1915. It was the moment where it was most important to prevent the Germans from seizing the sacks. People made large hordes of them in their private homes where the Germans could not get at them, buying them up under the pretext of collecting them. Every one competed in trying to use them in the most effective way. I was then interested in some artists for whom the conditions of life had become very difficult and I proposed to them to paint these sacks on condition that these pictures would prove our gratitude to the American people. This idea pleased them. I had the paintings outlined with embroidery so as to give some work [to] girls, and I sold them mounted as blotters, trays, cushions, tea tables for the benefit of the War Orphans.
Then I was arrested and sent to Germany. The work being started it was continued without me until the moment of America’s entering the war. The Germans then forbade to continue selling or exposing [exporting?] or fabricating objects made out of American flour sacks. Our artists and embroiderers continued notwithstanding to work sub-rose and that is how we have for sale today these “American flour sacks” which have twice nourished our people, once thanks to the American flour and a second time in allowing artists and work girls to be kept alive by the salaries the work brought them.
-Written by Hoover Presidential Library-Museum Director, Thomas Schwartz