By Mary Dodge Allen
Marilyn Monroe wearing a potato sack (Public Domain)
During hard times, people often ‘made do’ with what they had. And in the early to mid-1900’s, women in rural farming areas made household items and clothing for their families using something they had in abundance... feed sacks.
Until the mid-1800’s, bulk food products such as flour, beans, coffee, sugar, and animal feed were transported in heavy wooden barrels or metal containers. But after 1846, when Elias Howe patented the lock-stitch sewing machine, suppliers began using cost-effective and lighter-weight fabric sacks to transport these goods.
The earliest sacks were made from coarse fabrics, such as canvas, muslin and burlap. They were most often used to make towels, wash/dusting cloths, curtains, and rugs. During WWI, the practice of using these coarse fabric sacks to make clothing became more common, especially overseas. When the American Red Cross sent aid to war-torn countries experiencing supply shortages, the empty sacks were used to make much-needed clothes for refugees.
By the 1920’s, suppliers began using sacks made from softer cotton percale fabrics. These sacks were more suitable for making all types of clothing and household articles, like cloth diapers, pillowcases, quilts and even undergarments. Most of these sacks were decorated only with the supplier’s brand name and logo.
But in October 1924, Asa T. Bales filed a patent for cotton flour sacks in colorful patterns and with brand names and logos printed with ink that would wash away. He assigned his patent to the George P. Plant Milling Co. in St. Louis, for their new line of ‘Gingham’ flour. This marketing ploy caught on, and soon other milling companies were placing their own fashionable prints on their flour sacks. The Percy Kent Bag Company even hired textile designers from New York City to create stylish prints with colorfast dyes.
Flour sack designs (Public Domain)
Family in flour sack clothes (Public Domain)
When the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, the use of empty sacks to make clothing greatly increased. Most feed and flour sacks held 50 to 100 pounds of goods. A 100 pound sack was approximately 36” x 42” – yielding about 1 to 1 ½ yards of fabric. (At this time, one yard of fabric could cost as much as 60 cents at a retail store). Since most dresses required three yards of fabric, women wanted to find several feed and flour sacks with the same colorful pattern.
Some women hosted parties where empty sacks could be traded, while others made extra money by selling their empty sacks.
It became common for farmer’s wives to instruct their husbands to select feed sacks with specific patterns they liked. One feed salesman commented, “Years ago, they used to ask for all sorts of feeds... now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain’t natural.”
Advertisement circa 1940's (Public Domain)
During WWII, fabrics were in short supply because they were needed by the military for uniforms and other uses. To support the war effort, more and more women used feed and flour sacks to make clothing. The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association coined the slogan, “A yard saved is a yard gained for victory.”
Flour sack pattern (Public Domain)
Many flour sacks came with actual dress patterns on them, along with specific instructions to remove the ink from the brand labels.
Women in flour sack dresses (Public Domain)
Women used creative sewing skills to make their dresses more fashionable, adding ruffled collars, decorative buttons, belts and rickrack. The National Cotton Council even sponsored design contests, crowning the winner, the “National Cotton Bag Sewing Queen.”
But during the 1950’s, packaging began to change. Flour companies switched to using paper sacks, and the use of plastic in food packaging increased. By the 1960’s, fabric sacks were largely phased out.
Home sewing continues, although these days it is not as prevalent as it once was. During my school years, my mother sewed many of my clothes. She was an expert seamstress. I own a sewing machine, but I mostly use it for clothing alterations or repairs.
Did your grandparents talk about using feed and flour sacks in these ways? Do you have memories of your clothes being sewn at home? Do you enjoy sewing now? I’d love to hear your stories and comments.
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Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers.
Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.
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Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview: Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books