By Thomas F. Schwartz
One of the lesser known aspects of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) dealt with support of the Belgian lace makers. In 1915, a committee of Belgian women requested assistance for the importation of linen thread and needles as well as cash advances to keep the cottage industry of lace making sustainable during the war. In return, the CRB would find outlets for sales in the United States and England. Countess de Beughem managed the production of lace and Lou Henry Hoover oversaw the committees of American and British women who were responsible for the sales. The following letter to her sister-in-law, Mildred Brooke Hoover on February 1, 1915 details volunteer responsibilities:
“I terribly wanted to see you before I went away on business. I am not seeing anybody for pleasure, so I must deny myself that, but I find the only time I’ve got are these unexpected minutes over an unexpected tea, so I am dictating to Miss Edwards and making Abbie listen intelligently while I speak between bites of Miss Warren’s round walnut cookies!! It is this, I wonder if you would be interested in being chief adviser to a philanthropic lace business?
There are 50,000 Belgian lace workers out of work. If any part of these women had work, their wages would buy just that much more food and make the charitable contributions of America and other countries go just that much farther. If orders were place with these workers now, they would take many months to complete the elaborate designs, but a scheme has been worked out whereby £5,000 [$20,706.15 US dollars in 1915] worth of lace has been bought and £10,000 worth bought on approval, as it were of lace already made and this is in the hands of dealers for sale. There is a big Belgian Committee of prominent ladies and gentlemen, in charge of the movement there. They have taken this lace only from creditable dealers, and they pay only a small percentage of the money down. The dealers undertake to expend all the money they receive immediately on other work that they have in hand, and they also undertake to furnish receipts from the work women of the amount they have received on account. For the lace taken from them, they are given another small amount on account usually this is about 20% each time. When they have in hand again receipts from the women for this amount in wages paid out they get the next 20% and so on until the whole of the amount which they have been paid for the lace they now furnish is again paid out in wages, wherefore, they have again in their office just as much lace as that taken by the Commission’s Committee. In other words, the lace dealers are doing this with no middleman’s profit to themselves, but it all goes to the workers. Now the point is, how to get this sold in America. An American named Bell, who has worked all along on the American Committee of this Belgian Commission, is in charge of this selling end of the business, and he has some very elaborate schemes for its disposal—entirely through stores and organs of trade—but there are constantly cropping up, questions of detail that a woman will know much more about than men, especially if they haven’t been dealing in this sort of thing before. We have thought all along that it would be just the sort of job you would like, and I was going into the details of it next week, but since I am rushing away like this I shall have to leave all the ends to bring themselves together, however, I do hope that you will find it a good wedge to begin getting into all this very interesting philanthropic work that the Americans here are bustling about.
I have told Mr. Bell that he can look you up and talk to you about it, and probably Abbie will be able to give you odds and ends of details.”
The lace project was a great success. Herbert Hoover summarized the result in The American Epic: “In the end, these indefatigable women sold all the lace, and the Belgian women’s committee divided more than $1,000,000 in net proceeds among the individual producers, each according to the value of her product.”