Fashion Moments – Feed Sack Fabric

Fashion Moments by Deborah SweeneyWelcome to my weekly fashion blog post. Each week I will discuss a female garment, fashion trend or influencer from the age of photography (1840s through the 20th century). My goal is to educate family researchers and genealogists about the clothing worn by our ancestors. Dating photographs is an issue we all struggle with as family archivists. Additionally, anyone who writes about their family’s history should be aware of the environment in which their ancestors lived. Period clothing is an important part of that environment from how it affects a person’s movement to their overall lifestyle. This week I introduce you to the feedsack, or flour sack, dress.

I was inspired to write this week’s post because of a piece which I read last week from the Kindness Blog titled Flower Sack Dresses from the Flour Mills (Historical Kindness). The original article was written in May 2015. The article contains some wonderful information about the history of the feedsack, or flour sack, dress as well as some great historical photographs. (Unfortunately, none of the photographs have source information so it is hard to tell whether they are in the public domain or whether the author has permission to use the images). The article prompted me look again at some of my family photographs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Without being able to look at a directory of fabric patterns, it is hard to say whether or not a garment was made from a feedsack just by looking at a photograph. I had to put myself in my ancestor’s shoes, looking specifically at my more rural paternal ancestors.

Note: I can hardly imagine my maternal grandmother being in a situation where she would have worn a feedsack dress. She was a pampered only child who lived in suburban San Francisco in her youth and who later moved to New Jersey to attend teaching college. She had little exposure to farm life, despite spending a few years teaching at an Indian Reservation in the southwest in the 1930s before moving to Malaysia as a missionary.

The Yegerlehner family lived in rural Indiana on a fully functioning farm with livestock to feed. My great grandmother Lovina was a hardworking, frugal woman. I can imagine her using feedsack material for clothing or other household items, such as quilts. After my grandparents, Roscoe and Gladys, married in 1929, they lived in Clay County, while Roscoe continued to teach at rural schools. Gladys’ mother, Emma Foster, frequently visited the Yegerlehner farm, so even though she lived in Terre Haute, she had access to feedsack material. She also baked and sold pies, giving her a need for larger bags of flour. Both Lovina and Emma were quilters. I have inherited several quilts which were their handiwork. Below is one of my father’s baby quilts. How many of these scraps originally came from a cotton feed bag?

Quilt - Baby, detail (attributed to Emma Foster) #1

Baby quilt attributed to Emma Foster from the personal collection of the author

Feed Sack Fabric

Before the 1920s, goods like flour and animal feed were sold in cotton bags. Frugal housewives re-purposed the cotton for various household goods, like towels or children’s clothing. The cotton was plain, but could be bleached or dyed to change the color.

Uses for Cloth Flour Sacks, 1921

In 1924, Asa T. Bales of St. Louis, Missouri, patented his idea for packaging flour in dress quality gingham fabric. The George P. Plant Milling Company of St. Louis was the first company to print the fabric, and soon Gingham Girl Flour was marketing their product in colorful bags. Other flour companies quickly followed the trend.

Drawing for A.T. Bales patterned feed sack fabric

Gingham Flour sack ad

Gingham Girl Flour company ad from the 1930s.

During the depression of the 1930s and the war shortages of the 1940s, reusing the cotton material from these bags became a way of life for many Americans. The photograph below is from Clay City, Indiana, in the mid 1930s. A rural community even today, the majority of these children lived on farms. How many of these children do you suppose are wearing clothing made from a feed sack? [Note: This was my Uncle John’s class picture, the oldest of Roscoe and Gladys’ children. Can you find him?]

Clay City, c1935-1937 (Photograph from the private collection of Deborah Sweeney)

Clay City, c1935-1937 (Photograph from the private collection of the author)

Further Reading

A beautiful example of a feedsack dress from 1959 is owned by the National Museum of American History. The page contains a brief article of the dress’ historical background as well as a photograph of the dress.

Paper written by Margaret Powell titled From Feed Sack to Clothes Rack: The Use of Commodity Textile Bags in American Households from 1890-1960The author has a full bibliography of additional sources for information regarding the use and history of cloth bags.

U.S. Department of Agriculture pamphlet on Cotton Bags as Consumer Packages for Farm Products, 1933. Available for download from Internet Archive.

Feedsack Secrets: Fashion From Hard Times, by Gloria Nixon. I think I will be adding this one to my personal library soon!

Dating Fabrics – A Color Guide : 1800-1960, by Eileen Trestain.

©2015 Deborah Sweeney
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6 thoughts on “Fashion Moments – Feed Sack Fabric

  1. davidmadison1942

    This is the first I’d ever heard of this practice. Fascinating.

    John is in the second row from the bottom, 7th kid from the left. 🙂

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      Thank you! I just bought a couple books to add to my clothing/fabric collection after writing this post. I would be curious to know whether this practice was limited to the United States, or if it was something that also occurred in Europe.


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