According to my stepmom, Rose Stark, who was gifted with many homemaker talents, housewives from all walks of life used feed and grain sacks to make almost everything that required cloth. They looked at the material as “free cloth.”
During the Depression and war years, empty feed bags with decorative designs were used to especially make children’s clothing — including underpants — dresses, aprons and just about everything else imaginable.
To my recollection, life on America’s farms, even in the mid 1940s, meant hard work and being frugal. Farm families were used to “making do” with what they had, wasting nothing that could be recycled or reused.
With feed sacks, farm women took thriftiness to new heights of creativity. I guess you could call this an early recycling project.
I have vivid memories of my stepmom, grandmother and aunts. When the feed sacks were emptied, they would cut them open, wash them in the ringer washing machines and then make things such as quilts and clothes.
According to my older aunts in their 90s, marketing techniques during the ’30s and ’40s included offering products with the backs of bags showing prints of fabric dolls that could be sewn into toys or what she called “quilt blocks for embroidery.”
After World War II, the bags were not only a sign of domestic thrift; they also gave rural women a sense of fashion. I can remember my grandmother and stepmother participating in National Sewing Contests as a way to show off their skills. Having to “make do” many times, my stepmom frequently sold her surplus bags to others as a way of picking up cash.
Many people, including myself, have negative memories of being forced to wear things from feed sacks, while others just considered it normal. Along with the negative memories, I also have a humorous memory of a playground experience. When my stepsister came down the slide, her dress flew up, and everyone laughed to see the gold medal on her feed sack underpants (actually called underdrawers at that time).
When I lived in Dayton, Tennessee, back at the turn of the century, I saw some chicken feed sack clothes on eBay. They were selling for more than just chicken feed, listed at around $100 or more at times.
In doing my research as to when feed sack fabric became echoes of the past, I discovered that, just as economic changes contributed to feed sack beginnings, commercial evolution also factored in the decline. The feed sack was bagged as plastic and paper bags emerged, cheaper to make and more sanitary. And, as the economic climate improved, there was less need to recycle the sacks for sewing projects.
But feedbags with patterns of every genre remain, sometimes tucked away in storage or marketed on places like eBay or at auctions.
A client of mine in Florida, who I recently helped with writing his memoir, said his wife knows a woman in their hometown who has saved swatches in binders, cataloging 20,000 different patterns and colors.
So in the end, I guess one could say that today, these sacks are worth more than chicken feed. They have gone from bags to riches.