Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Remember Belgium

This past weekend, my friend Julia and I went to a local historical site, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.  For my readers outside of America, Herbert Hoover was the 31st president of the United States.  He began his career as a mining engineer, then organized humanitarian efforts before becoming the Secretary of Commerce.  He served only one term as president before being voted out, and he has had a less-than-stellar reputation due to the Great Depression starting in his first year of office.  However, he was the only president to be born in the state of Iowa, so his museum is a popular destination for elementary school field trips.

You might be wondering why I would devote space on my blog to this attraction, and the answer is because they are preserving a fascinating chapter in needlework history.

During World War I, the country of Belgium was disproportionately affected by German submarine blockades.  They had previously relied on importing food, and they did not have enough land to grow the amount of food necessary to support their population.  Hoover became the chair of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which organized food and monetary donations for Belgium during the war.

I don't know why I thought they had a real ship.  It was a parade float.
A large portion of the food relief came in the form of 50-pound flour sacks.  CRB organizers were concerned that the empty flour sacks could fall into the wrong hands.  There was a risk that people would fill them with inferior flour for reselling.  If the Germans got them, they could use the cotton for manufacturing ammunition.

To reduce these possibilities, organizers carefully kept track of the flour sacks, then sent the empty ones to professional schools where women were learning to sew and embroider as a trade.  Some women embellished the company logos on the bags, while others stitched elaborate messages of thanks to their American benefactors.  These embroidered flour sacks were used to raise money for the relief effort, and Hoover received many as gifts.  Today, the museum has a large collection of these flour sacks.  They have about five on display at any given time, rotating them out every several weeks.

The museum also has a display of Belgian lace.  The CRB worked to preserve this centuries-old industry by creating job opportunities for 20,000 female lace-makers.  Hoover's wife, Lou, used her connections to find buyers for the lace.

Bobbin lace
The exhibit is a reminder of the power that handmade objects held.  For every world-changing event, women were there to comment with their needles and thread.

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