Flour Bag Fashion

“When I was just a maiden fair,

Mama made our underwear;

With many kids and Dad’s poor pay,

We had no fancy lingerie.

Monograms and fancy stitches

Did not adorn our Sunday britches;…

No lace or ruffles to enhance

Just “Jockey Oats” on my pants.

One pair of Panties beat them all,

For it had a scene I still recall –

Chickens were eating wheat

Right across my little seat.

Rougher than a grizzly bear

Was my flour-sack underwear…

All through Depression each Jill and Jack

Worse the sturdy garb of the sack…

There were curtains and tea towels too,

And that is just to name a few.

But the best beyond compare

Was my flour-sack underwear.”

This poem, an anonymous ode to flour sack underwear from the 1930s, likely expressed the thoughts of many who wore feed sack fashion. Feed and flour sack fashion predated the Depression years, however.

In the 1850s, improvements in sewing machine design and a thriving and growing cotton market, helped by the widespread commercial use of the cotton gin, made cotton bags cheap and easy to produce. Wooden barrels, boxes, and bins, the stuff of transport for centuries, were pushed aside in favor of tightly stitched bags. Flour, sugar, animal feed, and fertilizer were among the products to be shipped in bags.

To the surprise of the companies, these bags proved nearly as valuable as the feed they contained.

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Two women in flour sack dress around 1929 (Source)

Rural families often had limited resources for reasons of finances and distance from markets. Forced to be thrifty, farm families took advantage of an essentially free source of fabric to make clothes. The cotton bags came with the names and logos of the companies and women figured out ways to remove the ink to make the fabric useable for dresses, towels, curtains, quilts, and other goods. It was no easy task – some soaked he bags in kerosene and others rubbed them with lard – but women were resourceful. Free from logos, the bags were dyed, embroidered, and trimmed.

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An instruction manual for sewing with cotton bags (Kindness Blog)

It took some time but by the 1920s, the flour and feed industry began to capitalize on the popularity of the bags. To make it easier for sewing, companies developed easy to remove labels. Others provided instructions on how to remove the labels. Then, they came up with printed patterns, bright colors, and printed pattern and embroidery lines. Gingham Girl flour, for instance, was marketed in red and white checked fabric of a dressmaking quality as early as 1925. Some companies even hired artists to design prints. Recycling flour sacks into clothing and household items had become a fad.

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Printed sacks of wheat for dressmaking (Life)

The introduction of printed fabric bags expanded the market for feed and flour from male farmers to farmers and their wives. Women were now more involved in the selection of feed. Feed and flour companies hoped that these innovations would cause women to instruct their husbands to purchase particular brands and additional bags so they could complete an outfit or pattern.

Commercial and noncommercial organizations alike published pattern and instruction booklets. A typical woman’s dress required three sacks.

Fad turned to necessity during the Depression and continued into World War II with fabric shortages and rationing. Fortunately for farm wives, feed sacks fell in the industrial rather than retail category during the war so clothing fabric could still be found in feed stores at the same time that readymade clothing became scarce.

Demand for cotton bags declined after World War II as packaging switched to paper, the new more cost-effective way to transport goods. Producers of cotton bags tried to keep their market share by intensifying their focus on farm wives. They hired top designers to create modern prints, and organized traveling fashion shows of clothes made from bags.

But the flour sacks’ days were numbered. Production declined in the late 1950s, replaced by cheaper plastic and paper.

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Wisconsin’s Goddesses and Ag Queens

I’ve never hid my love of agricultural queens. The cow-shaped air freshener given to me by Alice in Dairyland 2005 hung from my rearview mirror for years (no, it didn’t smell like cows). A few years ago, I did a tribute to Alice on “Wisconsin Life.” And now, I’ve written a longer piece on ag queens and the long history – and future – of women in agriculture for Edible Milwaukee. Get a sneak peek below and then follow the link to the full piece.

Isn’t she adorable? Alice in Dairyland.

She’s milked a cow with rocker Alice Cooper. She’s danced with Lawrence Welk on TV. She’s appeared in the Rose Parade.

She is Alice in Dairyland and she’s been Wisconsin’s agricultural royalty for 66 years. Alice travels the state during her yearlong reign talking up the importance of farming. Despite her name, she’s more than just dairy, and more than just an agriculture beauty queen.

“I cover the diversity of Wisconsin’s agricultural sector from mink and cranberries to ginseng and ethanol,” says Zoey Brooks, the 67th (and current) Alice in Dairyland. “It’s a marketing job, and I spend most of my time on the road trying to be a positive voice for agriculture in Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin’s royalty isn’t confined to Alice. We’ve also got a cranberry queen, a honey Queen, a Brown Swiss Queen, a Hereford Association Queen, a maple Queen, and a Cherry Blossom Princess, among others. While they may seem a little silly and outdated today, these agricultural queens have an ancient history.

Read the rest of the story in the fall issue of Edible Milwaukee.

Living Wilder in South Dakota

As a kid, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and her “Little House” books. Every time it snowed (rare in Seattle), I’d imagine opening the front door to find a wall of snow like in The Long Winter. Or tying a rope from the house to the barn to find my way in a blizzard (not that we had a barn in the suburbs). When the power went out (a much more common occurrence), my parents and I would huddle near the gas fireplace. Though we never had to close off the upstairs of our house for the winter, I was ready if it became necessary.

I read the books so often as a child that the characters felt like members of my own family. I imagined living in Laura’s time as well as showing Laura my life should she ever come to the present for a visit.

Although its been years since I’ve read the books, I couldn’t resist a stop in De Smet, South Dakota, otherwise known as the Little Town on the Prairie. De Smet is the setting for five of Wilder’s Little House books. Pa Ingalls brought his family there in 1879. This part of South Dakota is marked by small rolling hills and glacial lakes under an enormous sky. The whole town is given over to Wilder mania… even the public restrooms.

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The two existing Ingalls homes are owned by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Association. There’s the Surveyors’ House, which was originally located on Silver Lake (Wilder wrote about it in By the Shores of Silver Lake), where the family lived for five months before moving to their own homestead. Down the street is the original Ingalls’ house that Pa built in 1887. Its a small white two-story frame house just a few blocks from what is today De Smet’s main street.

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Some of the buildings featured in Wilder’s books still stand in the quiet town, including the Loftus Store and Banker Ruth’s house. On a warm and sunny September day, De Smet’s streets are quiet. The few people we pass smile and nod at us, surely knowing we are there for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Just outside De Smet is the Ingalls homestead where reproductions of buildings described by Wilder dot the spacious prairie grass. The 1862 Homestead Act provided that any citizen could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants had to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, the land was given to the original claimant for only a small registration fee. Pa Ingalls staked his claim and moved the family out to their new farm.

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The land has passed through many hands since the Ingalls family lived there. I was far less interested in the recreated buildings than in seeing the landscape with my own eyes. Even many years removed from reading the books, I could still see the mental picture of the Ingalls’ life that I had created so long ago. It really is a beautiful place and seeing it in person (something I still can’t quite believe I really just did!), I can imagine why Pa had so much hope for this promising piece of land after so many years of hardship.

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