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~ Feedsacks ~

If the word "feedsack" conjures up thoughts of burlap, then you probably weren't around before 1960.  From the mid 1920s through the beginning of the 1960s, products bought in bulk were packaged in colorful sacks made from cotton. And even though they are collectively referred to as feedsacks, the most common products packaged in the sacks were flour and sugar.

In many areas, the fabric was referred to as "chicken linen."

Feedsacks came in many prints - stripes, geometrics, florals and novelty prints. They also came in solid colors and border prints.

Sack packaging first appeared in the 19th century, but those sacks were made from white or unbleached muslin.  Even so, the sacks were saved and reused, or they were cut and sewn into clothing and household goods.

The printed and colored sacks came about as part of a clever marketing scheme. Someone at one of the many sack factories realized that they could sell more sacks if their sacks were somehow more desirable. The idea was that people would request printed sacks if they needed extra fabric to match a sack they already had.

The idea was successful and soon printed sacks were commonly used as packaging. Consumers loved them and soon many Americans were making everything from aprons to underwear from the bags. One 100 pound bag was large enough to make a simple blouse, but it took at least three bags to make a dress.  The bag manufacturers even distributed booklets like the one at the left, which gave suggestions for using the bags in different ways.

Women would trade bags with neighbors in order to get matching bags, or they would take a favored print with them as they went to the mill or store to hopefully find a match.  Often the town bakery would sell the many bags it accumulated.  And some of the same fabric used to make the sacks could often be bought by the yard from a local store, or could be ordered by mail.

Many people associate feedsacks with the Depression, and they certainly were used in a time when money and resources were tight.  They were also very much in use during World War II, when clothing was rationed. 

In 1945 my aunt, Ruth Underwood, made her wedding dress from feedsacks.  There was no money to buy a dress, and fabric was still in short supply.  The solution was to use what she had on hand - feedsacks.

All through the years that they were produced, feedsacks were saved and used.  To have not saved them would have seemed extremely wasteful to a society that had not yet learned to generate the massive amounts of garbage that we do today.

In the late 1950s many mills were turning to less expensive paper sacks, and by the early 1960s, cloth sacks were pretty much a thing of the past. Considering how useful they are, it's surprising that so many survive intact. 

I've been to estate sales where there were dozens of beautiful sacks, washed and neatly folded.  And I'm sure the 1930s housewife who saved them would be shocked to find the prices collectors and crafters are willing to pay for her "free" bags!

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Bumgarner, Glyde, interview, Canton, NC, July, 1997.

Grindley, Judith Scoggin,  Kiplinger, Joan Reed, and McClure, Jessie Grindley. Vintage Fabrics. Paducah, KY, 2006.

Kurella, Elizabeth. The Complete Guide to Vintage Textiles. Iola,WI: Krause Publications, 1999.

Sew Easy with Cotton Bags. Memphis, Tenn.: National Cotton Council, 1950.

Trestain, Eileen Jahnke, Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800 - 1960. Paducah, KY: American Quilter's Society, 1998.

Underwood, Ruth, interview, Marietta, GA, November 12, 2009.

Copyright 2007-2010 Lizzie Adams Bramlett. All Rights Reserved.