The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.
If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.
A recently received artifact in the Fenton's collection is the pictured small cotton dress. It dates from ca. 1945-1950 and was made by a local mother for her daughter. Of particular interest is the flowered fabric from which the dress is made. It's feed-sack fabric. It was first purchased by a farmer as a bag of grain to feed farm animals. It was then taken apart, laundered and used to make many things for use in the home. This particular flowered bag, along with a bit of coordinating fabric, became a small girl's dress.
A small girl’s feed bag fabric dress in the Fenton History Center collection.
The 19th century pioneer wardrobes often included underwear branded with flour mill logos and grain sack trousers. Cotton feed sacks became quilt backings, dish towels, aprons, curtains and many other household necessities. The thrifty farm wife used any fabric that came into the home. Sometimes it was almost impossible to remove the logos stamped on the bags, so there were "Gold Medal's seal upon the chest ... and Harvesters were gleaning wheat/ right across the little seat," from the poem "Flour sack underwear" by Dianne Shama - Country Women magazine.
Cloth bags have been in use to package and transport food staples - flour, sugar, corn meal and salt - since the early part of the 19th century. The first were homespun and hand sewn for family use with the name of the farmer stamped on them. They were used for transporting grain to the mill and flour home.
After the 1840 invention of the sewing machine, there was mechanization of textile bag production. Nevertheless, wooden barrels remained the most popular way to transport flour through the 1880s. It was close to 1900 before bags surpassed barrels. Inventive women soon found ways to recycle the bags - considering them as "free" fabric to serve many textile needs around the home. Over a yard of fabric - 36 inches by 42 inches - could be gleaned from a 98-pound flour bag. They became trousers, underwear, dish towels and quilt backing. Nineteenth century bag recycling sprang primarily from necessity, with neither desire nor choice usually part of the creative transformation.
The use of flour, and therefore bags, declined particularly from 1919 to 1933 - reflecting a change in diet. Manufacturers of the bags and the flour mills joined forces. The Textile Bag Manufacturers and the Millers National Federation attempted to increase sales by stimulating interest in home sewing with cotton bags. Even the bakers, who had sent bags back to the flour mills to be refilled, were able to sell their used bags over the counter through housewife "inquiry." The group also distributed a pattern booklet "Sewing with Cotton Bags" to emphasize the attractiveness of clothing made from bags.
Animal feed companies, who had no tradition for the design of bags as the flour industry did, recognized the potential of eye-catching cotton bags by the late 1920s.
The key attributes - thrifty, economical and practical - persisted through the evolution of bags from function to fashion and applied equally to the housewives that used them.
In October 1924, Asa T. Bales, patentee for the Geo. P. Plant Milling Company of St. Louis, Mo., obtained a patent for the use of fabric suitable for clothing as feed sacks. The company's Gingham Girl flour was packaged in a yard of fine quality red-checked gingham.
Manufacturers, in response to consumers dissatisfied at inks for brand and mill labels, which didn't wash out of the fabric easily, worked on developing an ink that did. This paved the way for cotton bags to become a respectable source of fabric and fashion for all economic levels.
By March 1942, there were at least 1,000 different colorful designs for the fabric. Cotton bag sales had reached an all-time peak during World War II with the demand for cotton bags almost equal to the demand for paper bags in 1940. There were advertising campaigns from 1948 through the 1950s. The goal was to make bag recycling as desirable, exciting and as "new" as possible. State fairs and Farm Bureau meetings promoted fashion style shows.
By the early 1960s companies could not financially support packaging products in cotton rather than paper bags. Home sewing also was on the decline.
Bag recycling and bag fashion reflects not only the products of thrifty and practical housewives, but also the marketing efforts of companies and organizations from the bag, feed, flour and cotton trades.
Some of the information for this column came from the article "Recycling Feed Sacks and Flour Bags: Thrifty Housewives or Marketing Success Story?" by Loris Connally, published in the 1992 volume of DRESS , the journal of the Costume Society of America.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.