“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.
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.
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.
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.