Cloth sacks for feed started to be produced in the mid-19th century, following the development of industrial sewing machines that were capable of producing strong seams that did not burst open when the sacks were filled or being transported. During the latter half of the 19th century, these sacks were often made of linen or burlap. Later on, cotton became popular. At first the format of the sacks was based on the older system of regional barrel sizes used for a range of commodities. It was not until the 1940’s that sack sizes became nationally standardized.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries feedsacks were normally marked with the name of a mill or producer. Small farms required a few sacks per month, but bakers, chicken farmers and others could use hundreds. Sometimes the marked sacks were returned to the original grain firms, but more often the empty sacks were sold or given away to women to make into clothing (especially underwear) and household items, such as towels or the backing of bed quilts. The concept of ‘waste not want not’ was a key factor in the use of these textiles.
The importance of flour sacks in the early 20th century for the production of household items is reflected in the fact that many local agricultural fairs in both the U.S. and Canada awarded ‘Ladies prizes’ to women who produced items made out of flour sacks.
First World War
But the story of feedsacks and their secondary use is not just confined to the printed sacks re-used in the USA. During the First World War (1914-1918), American and Canadian flour companies were producing printed flour sacks that were sent (with their contents) to The Netherlands (which was neutral) for distribution in war ravaged Belgium and beyond. Many of these sacks were later locally embroidered and sent back to America as souvenirs, ‘thank you’ gifts, to be sold in auctions to raise more money to buy flour to be sent to Europe. These sacks often had patriotic and hopeful messages in various languages.
Gingham girl flour
It was in the 1920’s, however, that manufacturers realised the potential of the cloth sack decoration to promote sales, by persuading the farmer’s wives to purchase specific brands. One of the first to do so was the George P. Plant Milling Company (in St. Louis, Missouri), which started in 1925 to produce a range of brick red gingham cloth sacks under the trade name of ‘Gingham Girl Flour’. Due to Gingham Girl’s popularity they went on to produce ‘Gingham Mother’, ‘Gingham Baby’ and ‘Gingham Queen’ in different colours.
The idea was patented in 1924, but it did not prevent other cloth and bag manufacturers from producing cotton bags with a variety of other attractive designs. By the late 1920’s, various companies, notably the Bemis Brothers (TN), Fulton Bag & Cotton Mills (GA) and Percy Kent of Buffalo (NY), were producing a range of designs and colours to attract (female) customers.
Domestic science institutes and feedsacks
Various schools and institutes in America were set up to help train women and girls in household skills, included the teaching how to use feedsacks. One such establishment was The Household Science Institute, which had offices in New York and Chicago. In the late 1920’s they sent out a monthly newsletter called Out of the Bag, which included tips for the use of feedsacks. One such newsletter, from April 1929, describes how such sacks could be used for the annual spring cleaning. The same company also put out one of the first of a series of helpful booklets, called Sewing with Cotton Bags (c. 1929), which had a wide range of suggestions for how sacks could be used by the busy and inventive housewife.