Belgian Lace as a Humanitarian Product during the First World War

  • Wendy Wiertz (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Lace is luxury. During wartime, the production of luxurious items such as lace is often discouraged. Nonetheless, Belgian lace was chosen to be a humanitarian product during the First World War. After the Commission for Relief in Belgium (C.R.B.) successfully set up a food aid program in occupied Belgium, the organization started to provide thread and wages to the circa 50,000 lace workers. The finished laces were exported for sale to the U.S. and other Allied Countries. The operation proved to be a success: the predominantly female lace workers could continue to produce handmade lace and support their families, while their industry even knew a revival during the war years. Explanations for this outcome and the study of some exquisite laces have been given by several authors including Charlotte Kellogg, Marguerite Coppens and Martine Bruggeman. Yet, apart from a short and unsatisfactory anecdote by the C.R.B.’s chair Herbert C. Hoover (1874-1964) about why the lace program was developed, no research has thoroughly examined the C.R.B.’s motives to start this program in the first place. That is why I research what the C.R.B. hoped to gain from choosing lace as a humanitarian product. An answer to this question is found by focusing on the aesthetics, the iconography, the economic value and marketing usefulness of the laces, contextualized within the C.R.B.’s other operations and its communication strategies. Therefore, I studied Belgian laces in several museum collections in Belgium and the U.S., consulted primary sources at Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Presidential Library Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa and the Archives of the Royal Palace in Brussels, and considered these findings within the existing literature on the C.R.B., its main figures, and its food aid program, about the history of lace, and about Belgium and its image during the war.
Period27 Jun 2019
Event titleHumanitarian Handicrafts. Materiality, Development and Fair Trade. A Re-Evaluation
Event typeWorkshop
LocationManchester, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational