Jul 22, 2011 • By

Flour sacks provide war relief

During World War I, food stored by Belgians was confiscated and their German occupiers refused to feed the population. Britain set up blockades to starve the German troops, but the blockade also further contributed to the lack of food supplies for Belgian and citizens of northern France.

To combat starvation of the Belgian people, the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) was established by Herbert Hoover (who was later elected U.S. president, in 1928). A volunteer organization, CRB fed 11 million Belgians between 1914 and 1919, shipping almost 700 million pounds of flour as well as sugar and grains.

The cotton flour sacks from America were carefully monitored. There was a great demand for cotton in the manufacturing of German ammunition. The CRB also had concerns that the bags may be filled with inferior flour and resold as relief flour.

Empty bags were distributed to professional schools, sewing workrooms, convents, and individual artists. Through these efforts, thousands of Belgians were employed. The results of their work – artistry, new clothing, accessories, pillows, bags and other functional items – were sold or given as gifts in Belgium, England and the U.S. The money from the sale of those items was used for food relief and to aid prisoners of war.

There were differences in designs and messages on the bags. Some people chose to embroider over the mill logo and brand name. Other crafters made entirely new images with stencils, paint and/or embroidery.

The General Mills Archives has two Belgian Relief Flour sacks, one is from the Pillsbury Flour Mill Co. in Minneapolis, and the other is from Cavalier Milling Co., in Drayton, North Dakota.

The Pillsbury flour sack has been embroidered with the English phrase: “America’s ships come over the sea, Ye Flemish bells ring out with glee.” It is stamped “Bruges 1916.”

The Cavalier flour sack has been embroidered in French that translates into “Turn, turn my mill! American wheat grind!” and is stamped “Bruselles, 1916.”

Both sacks appear to have original or stenciled images applied, painted and partially embroidered.

Herbert Hoover was given several hundred flour sacks as gifts and the Hoover Presidential Library & Museum has one of the largest collections of World War I flour sacks in the world.

For more information, see Cornell College’s link, “The Great Humanitarian: Herbert Hoover’s Food Relief Efforts.”

The Kansas Historical Society has a collection of Kansas Belgian Relief Sacks.

Editor’s note: Have a question about General Mills’ history? Send our Archives team an email.