Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Happy Burns-/ Birth- day!

Burns' Birthday Celebration poster, 1914. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 10951)

Greetings and a happy new year to you, Readers!

I've just returned from a birthday trip to Los Angeles and am here to share with you this timely and amusing poster marking a "Burns' Birthday" celebration held at London's Royal Albert Hall on January 23, 1915.

Today's treasure (from the IWM's archives) promises a "Grand Scotch Festival and Patriotic Concert" to support the Belgian Relief fund. It is interesting to note that the 18th century Scottish poet's honorary festival was linked in such a fashion to the modern conflict, still new in early 1915. That the event was held in one of the most recognizable of London's Victorian landmarks bridges the space in between, making the concert a connector of three centuries.

Traditionally, Burns's birthday (January 25th) is celebrated with a supper. It begins, according to Wikipedia, with the saying of the "Selkirk Grace," a 17th century prayer that goes like this:

Some have food and cannot eat,
And some would eat that lack it,

But we have food and we can eat,
So let God be thanked. 
This prayer, if said at the 1915 occasion, would have been particularly apt, considering the event's goal of raising money for the Belgian Relief Fund. In 1915, rationing had not yet begun in the United Kingdom (it would not start until 1917), so we might assume that most attendees would not be noticing food shortages. The international Commission for Relief in Belgium, however, was focused on severe food shortages that hit the Belgian populace after the German invasion of 1914. Based in London, it was headed by future U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Financial support from donors enabled the complicated political, diplomatic, and logistical work of the CRB. Ultimately, the commission was able to organize shipments of millions of pounds of food to Belgium over the war years. 

Part of the food items shipped to the starving nation consisted of flour. The sacks in which the precious grain product were sent became both a practical and emotional resource. They were often used for clothing, but many grateful citizens embellished them to express thankfulness and devotion to the nations who had helped them. Here is an example in the Hoover presidential archive:

"Thank you to the American Commission",
Embellished flour sack, 1915 © Hoover Presidential Archives, Item  64.2.202.

The Hoover archive holds an extraordinary collection of these flour sacks, with useful information on this unusual aspect of WWI material culture.

Heading back to the Burns' day festivities at the Royal Albert Hall in 1915, it seems a remarkable affair, with as much pomp and circumstance as could be mustered to honor the Scottish poet and to support Belgian citizens. Though traditional Burns day activities are rather light-hearted, including dancing and the toasting of a haggis with Burns's poem, "Address to a Haggis", the levity of this particular day's music and other aspects would have been tempered with the gravity of purpose and patriotism.

I don't have more information on the performers and groups listed on the poster. I'd like to poke around in the archives and elsewhere online to find out more and, if successful, will post the results!

And with that, we'll sign off and wish you a happy new year and a happy Burns day, should you be celebrating!

© Fiona Robinson