Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flour Sack History

RUSHdesign Flour Sack Towels: an elegant revival of an American relic.

For those of you who may be curious about the flour sack towel's origins, some articles have been compiled below that tell some rich stories. The transformation of feed and flour sacks represents how resourceful people are during times of adversity...poignant information for the current struggles we face.

This information was taken from the internet. Unfortunately, some sources may not be listed; this post is for informational purposes only.
PLEASE CONTACT US WITH YOUR OWN STORIES about flour sacks and your traditions. We'll post them with your permission for others to enjoy this interesting part of American History.

A World of Thanks:World War I Belgian Embroidered Flour Sacks
History of the Flour Sacks

The Commission for Relief in Belgium was established during the World War I under the chairmanship of Herbert Hoover, for the purpose of providing food relief to war torn Belgium . The CRB operated entirely with voluntary efforts and was able to feed 11,000,000 Belgians between 1914 and 1919 by raising the necessary money, obtaining voluntary contributions of food, shipping the food past the German submarine blockades and army occupied areas, and controlling the food distribution in Belgium.

The CRB shipped 697,116,000 pounds of flour to Belgium and evidence indicates that sugar and grains were also sent. The flour was packaged in cotton bags by American mills. The movement of these bags throughout Belgium was carefully controlled by the CRB since cotton was in great demand for the manufacture of German ammunition and also because the CRB feared that the flour sacks would be taken out of Belgium , refilled with inferior flour, and resold as relief flour. As a result, the empty flour sacks were carefully accounted for and distributed to professional schools, sewing workrooms, convents, and individual artists.

Separate from the trade schools of Belgium , the professional schools specialized in training girls to sew, embroider, and make lace, and the sewing workrooms were large centers established in the major Belgian cities during the war to provide work for the thousands of unemployed. Girls and women made famous Belgian lace, embroidered textiles and repaired and remade clothing in these workrooms.
The flour sacks were used by these various Belgian groups to make new clothing, accessories, pillows, bags, and other functional items. Many women chose to embroider over the mill logo and the brand name of flour, but entirely original designs were sometimes created on the sacks and then embroidered, painted, or stenciled on the fabric. Frequent additions to the flour sacks were Belgian messages of gratitude to the Americans; embellishments of lace; the Belgian and American flags; the Belgian lion; the Gallic cock; the American eagle; symbols of peace, strength, and courage; the Belgian colors of red, yellow, and black; and the American colors of red, white, and blue. Artists, in particular, used the flour sacks as the canvas background for creating original oil paintings.
Differences appear in the designs and messages of the embroidered and painted flour sacks, due to the fact that Belgium is composed of two distinct groups of people: the Walloons or French speaking people in the south and the Flemish or Dutch speaking population in the north.

The completed flour sacks were carefully controlled and distributed to shops and organizations in Belgium , England , and the United States for the purpose of raising funds for food relief and to aid the prisoners of war. Many were also given as gifts to the member of the Commission for Relief in Belgium out of gratitude for the aid given the Belgian people.

Herbert Hoover was given several hundred of these flour sacks as gifts and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum has one of the largest collections of World War I flour sacks in the world.


America's Quilting History~ our heritage of women's sewing ~Feed Sack Quilt History: Feed Sacks, Frugal and Fun © 2001 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman.
Making quilts and clothing using feed sacks brings to mind the poverty of the Great Depression. But at the same time there is a romance to the idea that women could make something beautiful from something so mundane.
In truth feedsacks were used for sewing well before the depression and for several years after. The evolution of the feed sack is a story of ingenuity and clever marketing.
Initially farm and food products were shipped in barrels. Between 1840 and 1890 cotton sacks gradually replaced barrels as food containers. Many of the logos on the flour sacks were circular, a legacy from the time when these logos had to fit on the top of a barrel.1 Women quickly discovered that these bags could be used as fabric for quilts and other needs.
Cotton had been king until the period of 1914 to 1929 when the price dropped out of the cotton market partially because synthetic fabrics like rayon became popular for dresses and undergarments. With the drop in the price of cotton even more companies began using cotton sacking as packaging. Initially these bags were plain unbleached cotton with product brands printed on them. In order for women to use these bags they first had to remove the label. Housewives used such methods as soaking the brand in kerosene or rubbing it with unsalted lard then washing it with lye soap. Later Fels-Naptha soap and Chlorine bleach were used. 2
In spite of their efforts all of the brand label didn’t always get removed and sometimes it didn't seem worth the bother especially for making undergarments. As a result there are some amusing stories regarding feedsack underwear. “One young girl was out walking with her beau when she tripped and fell. Oh, how embarrassed she was when her betrothed noticed her underdrawers imprinted with 'southern best'! Another story was about a woman who made her husband's drawers from a flour sack and left the words 'self rising' on the cloth.” 3
It took a while for feed and flour sack manufacturers to realize how popular these sacks had become with women. They then saw a great opportunity for promoting the use of feedsacks. First feed sacks began to be sold in colors then around 1925 colorful prints for making dresses, aprons, shirts and children’s clothing began to appear in stores. Manufacturers began to paste on paper labels making it far easier to remove them.
By the late 1930s there was heated competition to produce the most attractive and desirable prints. Artists were hired to design these prints. This turned out to be a great marketing ploy as women picked out flour, sugar, beans, rice, cornmeal and even the feed and fertilizer for the family farm based on which fabrics they desired. Some sacks displayed lovely border prints for pillowcases. Scenic prints were also popular. Manufacturers even made pre-printed patterns for dolls, stuffed animals, appliqué and quilt blocks.
Those who found they had more feed sacks than they could use were able to sell them back to the store where they were then resold. Chicken farmers went through a great many sacks of feed so the sale of feedsacks became a side business for some of them. Feed sacks were even sold by itinerant peddlers giving country women who lived far from town a chance to pick and choose from a variety of feed sack colors and prints. Women also traded feedsacks in order to get patterns that matched fabric they already had or for colors and prints they wanted. They were most creative in finding ways to get the varied fabric they wanted for their feed sack quilt.
We usually think of feed sacks being a way women provided clothing and bedcoverings during the economic hard times of the boll weevil depression in the south in the 1920s and the Great Depression that followed. But actually printed feedsacks were used for sewing from before these depressions to well after World War II. Even though the economy improved during the 1940s there was a need to conserve because of the need for war supplies. Using feed sacks for sewing was considered patriotic and women still enjoyed finding attractive prints on feedsacks. Iowa quilter, Ethel Taylor Jordan, recalls how “Papa couldn’t go to the store and buy feed without one of us girls, if you were the one who needed material you were the one who got to go.” 4 Moreover if it was a long way to the store and a few sacks of flour were to be bought a fellow's wife or daughter might have had him move several 50 pound sacks of flour from a 6 foot high stack just so she could get the matching fabric she wanted. 5
By the 1950s paper bags cost much less than cotton sacks. Companies began to switch over to this less expensive packaging. To combat this the feedsack industry actively promoted the use of feedsacks in advertising campaigns and even a television special encouraging the use of feed sacks for sewing. Although feedsacks were gradually replaced by other materials as late as the 1960s the fabric sack industry tried to compete by offering novelty fabrics including rayon and blended materials.


What is the fascination with feedbags, this once lowly regarded coarse, homespun textile called chicken linen -- nostalgia for times gone by? a relic of America’s agriculture progress? a piece of American folk history? a part of childhood? something for a colorful display or quilting?
The feedsack or feedbag was at the peak of popularity during the 1930s-50s. Just as vast economic changes contributed to its beginnings, it also contributed to its decline. Much of the historical facts cited here are from Anna Lue Cook’s Textile Bags, a resource every feedbag collector should keep securely pinned to her side.
Up until the mid-1800s, storage containers were primarily wooden barrels, boxes, tins and to some extent, pottery. It was the abundant source of cotton from the South which enabled the transformation to cotton bags for flour, sugar, meal, grain, salt and feed. Eventually this led to the births of industries for weaving bag cloth, manufacturing bags and developing inks suitable for printing on textiles, not to mention those handy with words to come up with catchy advertising .
The early bags prior to 1850s were handsewn, handmade and usually bore an identifying handstamp of the individual taking it to the gristmill. With the introduction of sewing machines, bag manufacturing and sales increased although were still too expensive for most companies to purchase. As late as the 1880s barrels were still the preferred storage unit but by WWI they had all but disappeared.
Once established, bags were produced in varying sizes from one pound for household use to those 12 feet long for picking cotton. The original sizes corresponded to barrel measurements for a pound to 1/8 pound of flour. In 1943 bags were standardized into six sizes ranging from 100 pounds to two pounds by order of the War Production Board.
It was the depression which created a real demand for bags as frugal housewives discovered they could reuse and recycle them. Empty bags were prey for conversion into boys underpants, children’s clothing, aprons, dresses and everything else imaginable.
To accommodate the little lady as well as sidle in a great marketing ploy, manufacturers added figured and dress prints to the whites, browns and other solid colors of earlier manufactured bags. Some bags came ready for sewing with doll patterns printed on one side or sewn-in drawstrings that when one seam was ripped produced an instant apron; others were specifically printed for pillow cases or curtains. Pattern companies issued appealing booklets for sewing attractive garments and how to care for sacks. A 1942 estimate showed that 3 million women and children of all income levels were wearing print feedbag garments.
Collectible Feedsack Cloth and Quilts: the Past Revisited
by Patricia Lynne Grace Cummings
photos by James Cummings
October 11, 2003
Feedsack cloth, so treasured by quilters and collectors today, is actually recycled cloth from sacks and bags that once held all sorts of consumable goods from sugar to flour to chicken feed, grains, rice, and even dog food. The sacks were sometimes plain white but with printed (advertising) ink that would wash out. One quilter in Maine recalls that her mother could often be seen in better weather, outside with an old fashioned scrub board and basin, trying to get those old flour and sugar sacks perfectly white. After all, she needed them as “plain fabric to go along with all those prints”. She used many of them in crazy quilt blocks that she pieced over newspaper.
Some bags, with ink still present, can be seen today on the back of
unfinished quilt blocks and quilt tops. Ironically, on some sacks, all of the ink would be water soluble, except for one line of instruction which told how to remove the ink! Later, ink letters were replaced with paper labels which could be easily soaked off.
Feedsack was very adaptable and though it was used in quilts, it more often was recycled into dresses, aprons, underwear, curtains, towels, and dolls. The cloth seems to have been more frequently used in the rural areas of the south and in the Midwestern United States where farms abound..
Until recently, the person responsible for the idea of printing feedsack in colorful designs, was not known. However, a newspaper article in the Citizen Tribune of Morristown, Tennessee reports feedsack collector, Frances Clark, as having mentioned that the Percy Kent Co. credits Richard K. Peek, with the great idea. A publication in honor of their 100th anniversary (in 1985) shares the company lore of just how this idea came to Richard, a major stockholder in the company. This marketing ploy to offer lovely fabrics helped to boost sales, making that company one of the largest of its kind in the country.
This recycling trend lasted from the mid-1920s through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the war years of the 1940s. After that, paper and plastic bags began to replace the cloth ones. However, cloth bags continued to be produced into the early 1960s, in a more limited way. A few manufacturers will take special orders to make them, even today.
Colorful, printed feedsack bags were constructed so that when the side seam was opened, the resulting piece of usable cloth was approximately 37” x 43”, equal to more than one yard of fabric. Many sacks were engineered so that, with the removal of one string, the result would be a ready-to-use apron or tea towel. Three sacks were usually enough to make a woman’s dress.
One friend in Wisconsin remembers wearing nothing else but feedsack dresses until she was in the eighth grade. Even undergarments were made from the cloth. Can you just imagine the consternation of little boys who had chickens marching across their bottoms?
The bags that held flour and sugar were tightly woven and “wore” well as dishtowels. Some of these were embroidered with outline stitched designs (sometimes redwork). Flour bags represented 42% of bag production
while sugar sacks accounted for 17% of total bags manufactured. Usually, both flour and sugar bags held quantities of only five or ten pounds. Advertising slogans such as, “The best cooks are generous with sugar”, and “Food that is sweet is hard to beat” could be found on sugar bags. The initials "NRA" and the words "we do our part" were added to many sugar bags. NRA=National Recovery Act.
Instructions on how to open the bag were sometimes printed on the back, as was the case of one bag made for the National Sugar Refining Co. in New Jersey which held Jack Frost Cane Sugar. Usually, these small bags were a piece of cloth, folded in half, and stitched on one side only. A coarse type of string with which the bag was closed, was saved, and often found new use as quilting or crochet thread during those hard economic times. As an additional lure for mothers, companies sometimes printed cut-out dolls or stuffed animal patterns on these sacks. Today, these types of sacks are highly collectible, especially if found in an unused condition.
The practice of finding new uses for something that would otherwise be discarded is not hard to understand, particularly if one looks at the dire poverty that faced residents in rural areas, especially during the Great Depression. Some sacks that had one edge which featured a “border print” made especially nice pillowcases.
Once the manufacturers realized the value of printed cloth to consumers, they competed to provide the most desirable prints. The woman of the house would often give her husband strict “marching” orders when he left for the feed store, telling him exactly what color bags to choose, and if she wanted a new dress, the sacks might have to match!
Feedsack cloth became lovingly referred to by other names such as “chicken linen”, “hen house linen” or just “pretties”. Novelty prints and juvenile prints (especially of animals) are particularly collectible today and continue to yield high prices on ebay.
Solid color feedsack was manufactured in the colors of red, purple, lavender, tan, brown and pastels of blue, pink, green, and yellow. The solids are becoming increasingly rare, to the point that many quilters are dyeing new material to resemble these old (1930s-look) colors. Often, feedsack was printed with floral designs. Other motifs include geometrics, stripes, large polka dots, birds, animals, and in one case, a “Gone with the Wind” print, now highly sought after by collectors.
In 1943, the War Production Board, under the direction of President Roosevelt, ordered that only six standardized feedsack sizes be produced: 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 lb. bags. As a result, pre-1943 bags in odd sizes, such as those that held six pounds or any other size other than those listed above, are rare and in demand by collectors.
There were approximately forty two different companies that made feedsack cloth. One of the largest feedsack manufacturers was Bemis Brothers of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which had offices in a number of cities throughout the United States. Any antique bags made by that company are very collectible as they are prized for their charming logo of a cat coming out of a bag.
(END of articles.)
The Rush Family and extended members create all of RUSHdesign's original artwork. The hand-painted or computer-generated images are silk screened on our high-quality, 100%-cotton towels. The printed area covers 15" wide X 22" long and the towel itself measures 22" wide X 38" long.

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