Citizen Philanthropy: Say It With Flour!

Despite the end of World War I in 1917, war and food shortages continued in the Near East as competing powers fought for dominance throughout the region.  Confronted with the challenge of how to feed thousands of refugees, Near East Relief found creative ways to appeal to the American public to support humanitarian work.

The Turkish invasion of Armenia in September of 1920 once again threw the lives of the people there into chaos. Led by General Kazim Karabekir, the army quickly advanced through the fledgling country. Kars fell on October 31, and a week later the Nationalist Army occupied Alexandropol. In early December, Russian intervention ended the Turkish advance and led to the establishment of a Soviet government in Armenia. The Turkish army finally evacuated in April of 1921, leaving behind thousands of war-ravaged and starving refugees, many of them children.

Plea for Help: Cablegram received January 13, 1921

“More than two hundred thousand refugees dying between Kars and Alexandropol. Anarchy, lack of food and fuel, stoppage of all traffic and severe winter adding to the disaster. We beg you to take steps immediately for continuation shipments provisions by the American people to population threatened by famine.”

  • Aharonian, President Armenian Delegation to Peace Conference

To meet the demand for food, Near East Relief coordinated with business groups around the country to generate donations. One such campaign encouraged people to donate coins and flour while doing their regular shopping.

First promoted by the Syracuse Retail Grocer’s Association in 1921, grocery store owners placed a barrel of flour on display and attached a receptacle for customers to contribute to sending flour to alleviate the food shortages in the Near East. The campaign quickly received endorsements from across the country.

Part of the campaign include the use of Coin Posters, where people could donate silver dollars to the cause. The posters were distributed to grocery stores and bakeries by the Globe Grain and Milling Company. Banks, hotels and theaters  around the country were also encouraged to display Coin Posters to promote the campaign.

An article in The New Near East announced that flour was being contributed by the carload for shipment to the Batum for distribution throughout the region.

Using Her Star Power

Norma Talmadge was a silent film star, voted the most popular in American in the 1921 National Star Popularity contest. Between 1910 and 1930 she appeared in more than a hundred films.  Quoted in the January 1922 edition of New Near East praising “Alice in Hungerland”, Talmadge said of the film “it made me feel proud that I belonged to a profession which possesses the power to convey to the public, in graphic, irresistible way such a magnificent message as yours.”

She also appeared in her own movie to promote the “Say It With Flour” campaign. Although the film does not survive today, at the time she reportedly donated her salary of $1000 to the relief effort at the end of filming.

A Recipe for Bread: Matnakash

Tons of flour were used every month at Near East Relief orphanages such as Alexandropol to make bread to feed the children. The records do not provide detail about the type of bread served, although it was probably something quite simple and inexpensive to produce. Matnakash is a traditional Armenian flatbread that is commonly found in the region.


  • 5 cups bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 cups warm water (about 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • 3 tablespoons  vegetable oil


  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. In a bowl, add all dry ingredients, stirring to combine. Gradually add the water, and mix until a soft dough forms.
  3. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough about 20 minutes.
  4. Place dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl; cover with a clean towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour.
  5. Moisten your hands with water, punch the dough lightly; stretch and fold the dough four times. Then cover it again and leave it in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
  6. Grease baking pan with vegetable oil; place the dough into the pan; flatten into a cake.
  7. Cover with a towel and let the dough sit for another 20-30 minutes.
  8.  Moisten the surface of the dough with water and make grooves in the dough with a fork, knife, or fingers,
  9. Bake until golden brown (about 15-20 minutes).