Americans in Rural Areas Used Feed Sacks for Clothing During the Great Depression and World War Two

Jhemmylrut Teng

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Women in the Midwest fashioned wearing clothes from feed sacks(Source: Vintages.es)

The United States of America is one of the countries in the world with leading fashion industry, especially in New York City. It has always been the case, even over a century ago.

However, in the first half of the 20th century, trends didn't reach much of the country's rural areas. Apart from this fact, scarcity in fabrics was also evident in the era of the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War.

Be that as it may, American farmwives, particularly in the Midwest (i.e., Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Nebraska), never considered the fabric scarcity a predicament. In fact, they had been very resourceful in providing their family with clothes to wear by sewing sacks of chicken feed, flour, and wheat.

Such a practice kickstarted in the late 1920s, but it became a norm throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Because of this, milling companies used this rural practice as part of their marketing strategy by targeting farmwives in getting the dollars out of their husbands.

From Barrels to Cotton Sacks

In 1800 the packaging of flour, feed, and wheat were wooden barrels. As years go by, individual farmers used fabric sacks made of cotton because it was more convenient to transport using a horse. These sacks were hand-sewn at home.

When sewing machines were finally invented, fabric sacks became common because it was much cost-effective than wood barrels. By the early 1900s, smaller and easy-to-handle bags were in demand, which resulted in two pounds sizes of commodity sacks.

Recycled generic fabric

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Plain osnaburg fabric feed sack with the company logo(Source: Journal of Rural Research & Policy)

The traditional look of the commodity sacks was a plain osnaburg fabric in white or brown color with the company logo stamped on the front of the bag.

Regardless of huge logos and labels, farm women washed these fabrics. Soaking them for a longer time to erase the stamp, removed the stitch, and recycled them into rags, rough towels, and aprons.

Meanwhile, sacks for sugar and flour had a much smoother and lighter texture than those used for feeds and seeds. Therefore, rural housewives recycled the lighter textiles into undergarments, dresses, children's clothes, dish towels, pillowcases, bedsheets, quilts, and curtains.

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Woman in Alabama used sacks for her dress, curtain, and chair cover(Source: Wikimedia)

Women added embellishments to these sacks to still look pleasing and fashionable by putting ribbons, rickracks, embroideries, and buttons.

Using sacks as fabrics were associated with impoverished rural living, which was the fact that country women already accepted. Despite such challenges, the lack of means paved the way for these farmwives to sharpened their creativity and resourcefulness.

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Class picture of farm children, wearing clothes from sacks made by their moms(Source: Vintages.es)

When Recycling Became a Marketing Strategy

The U.S. fashion industry in the early 20th century was primarily focused on key cities in the country. Fashion innovation often originated in a design studio. It was presented to retail buyers and wealthy customers on the fashion runway of Europe and New York.

The newest trends in the clothing line and fabric styles were typically marketed to higher to lower-income customers in urban areas. The farmwives had never been considered as a target market for fashion. However, the Great Depression and the Second World War changed that.

Rural women's purchasing power

Recycling sacks into dresses and other household items was the zeitgeist in rural America in the midst of the Great Depression, World War II, and post-war.

Therefore, the cotton bag manufacturers find more ways to earn money by targeting the farmwives as customers. When these companies realized the women in rural areas were recycling the bags, they made recycling more attractive and sustainable by producing printed sacks.

In 1936, Stanley Milling Company of Kansas City, Missouri, found out that rural housewives dyed plain sacks and turning them into dresses; they immediately offered the "Tint-sax." These sacks, manufactured by Percy Kent Bag Company, were available in eleven pastel shades using percale textile.

Milling companies started to have a competition to gain farmwives' purchasing powers. They were marketing their product using printed sacks to persuade rural women to convince their husbands to buy specific brands.

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A company in Kansas used printed fabric sacks for their wheat products(Source: Vintages.es)

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Egg mash feeds in floral percale sacks, 1930s(Source: Vintages.es)

Advertisement and marketing strategies

According to Professor Kendra Brandes, a fashion historian and former Associate Professor at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Milling companies' marketing tactics were redirected from the farmer to the farm wife as bag manufacturers and mills attempted to "attract feminine attention to get the masculine dollar."

The companies made the sacks more and more convenient for rural homemakers as they created several enticing strategies that helped the women in their fabric recycling.

"Feed sacks were designed with easy use in mind. Sacks were stitched along one side and across the bottom with a simple chain stitch so that stitching could be removed by clipping the top loop and pulling out the entire line of stitching very quickly. The string could be saved for other uses. More effort was made to use logo inks that were easily washed out. Manufacturers printed patterns for dolls, doll clothes, and other items on the backs of the feed sacks. Items could be cut directly from the sack and quickly sewn. Sacks were sometimes hemmed before being stitched as a bag so that when the chain stitching was removed, the bag was ready to use as an apron or tablecloth, depending on the size of the bag." -- Prof. Brandes
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Feed sack's instruction on washable label inks(Source: Vintages.es)

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Varieties of printed sacks with instruction on how to remove the printed labels(Source: Etsy Journal)

Both commercial and non-profit organizations offered booklets offering garment patterns and instructions for using the feed sacks.

The Household Science Institute in Chicago printed booklets as early as the late 1920s. The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association helped boost sales and joined forces with the Millers National Federation in 1935 to increase the sale of cotton bags by encouraging home sewing projects.

Ideas for sacks use, as well as instruction sheets, were printed in many magazines published for the rural audience. Local newspapers featured patterns for home sewing and high school “domestic science” classes.

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Recycling feed sacks advertisement(Source: Vintages.es)

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Feed sacks advertisement target rural women consumers(Source: Pinterest)

Updated Print Styles

At the height of World War II, there was an increase in textile shortages, particularly for garments. The U.S. textile production was funneled into the war effort. In 1943, the War Production Board restricted cotton print cloth to military and industrial uses.

Therefore, dresses using quality fabrics disappeared from retail counters. But for rural housewives, this was not their problem as textile used for feed sacks was under the "industrial" category.

Because of this, many manufacturers felt pressured to offer feed sacks that were not merely colorful but also with the latest style prints.

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Advertisement of latest sacks print style(Source: Vintages.es)

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Disney's Alice and Wonderland print in sacks(Source: Pinterest)

During the post-war, paper bags were started to outshine fabric bags because they were cost-effective. Accordingly, this led bag manufacturers to intensify their marketing strategy by holding the farm wife's purchasing power.

The National Cotton Council and the Textile Bag Manufacturers Association partnered with Simplicity and McCalls pattern companies to further promote the purchase of feed sacks. Both business and trade organizations sponsored fashion shows and design competitions.

By 1947 major bag manufacturers had hired nationally and internationally textile designers. They ensured that their sacks offered the most up-to-date prints based on styles selected by rural homemakers through local surveys.

"In terms of fashion history, this fact alone is a truly unique example of the farm wife influencing the 'high end' of the fashion process. Sales of feeds, bags, and cotton fiber depended heavily on the farm wife wanting a particular print, and millers and bag manufacturers actively sought to meet that demand. The American farm wife became the target market." -- Prof. Brandes

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Flour sacks with pasted paper labels(Source: Journal of Rural Research & Policy)

Similar prints for the family

Two sacks are required to make an adult dress. Therefore, whenever husbands go to feed stores in towns, which was then considered a mission because of the lack of transportation, they hoped to buy feed sacks in similar prints for their wives. The farmwives already told their husbands which ones they should get.

Of course, there were instances in which they cannot acquire sacks with similar designs. If this was the case, the women cut these fabrics into small squares and quilt them. Apart from this, rural families saved their empty sacks and traded them to their neighbors in exchange for the patterns they preferred.

Some even traded baked goods to other farmers to get the designs they already had. Most of the time, mothers and their children wore similar patterns, making them distinguishable in school, church, and community events.

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A family used similar feed sack prints for their daughters(Source: Kindness Blog)

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Feed sack dress made by Dorothy Overall of Caldwell, Kansas, in 1959. Now in the collection of the Smithsonian(Source: National Museum of American History)

Towards the latter part of the 1950s, the production of feed sacks began to decline. Millers started to use paper bags for their products as they shifted their focus on large-scale chicken farms.

Nevertheless, using sacks as clothing represent a critical zeitgeist in the American culture that emphasized rural American life.

Currently, these printed feed sacks can still be bought online, particularly on eBay, as a vintage collection.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.

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