Feedsack fashion officially got its start in 1924. Oh, thrifty farm wives nationwide had known for years that this common cotton bag— fondly nicknamed chicken linen, ‘pretties,’ or hen house linen—was a great source of utilitarian fabric for dish cloths, diapers, nightgowns, curtains, pillowcases and more.
But in the 2nd quarter of the 20th century manufacturers came up with a fresh way to turn this fact to their additional advantage. Plain sacks were a commodity, but by offering sacks in various prints and solid colors manufacturers could differentiate themselves from the competition and create loyalty. It would take three identical sacks to make a dress, four to make a bed sheet, and the farmer just might be induced to buy more that way.
And so U.S. Patent #1611403, filed on October 29, 1924 by Asa T. Bales, states in part: ”One of the objects of this invention is to provide a package having a sack, the cloth of which is adapted to be used for dress goods after the product has been removed or consumed.” Bales assigned the patent to Geo P. Plant Milling Co. in St Louis. Crescent Flour and Feed Company of Springfield, MO, was the first to market their products in the bright printed bags.
About the only patterning on the earliest feedsacks, dating from about 1840, was the brand name printed on the bag’s side. In order for women to use these bags they first had to remove the label. Recipes for doing this were treasured and exchanged wherever woman gathered. Housewives used such methods as soaking the brand in kerosene or rubbing it with unsalted lard, then washing it with lye soap. Later they’d use Fels-Naptha soap and Chlorine bleach.
As late as the 1880s barrels were still the preferred storage unit, but by WWI they had all but disappeared. And once the feedsack became the default, it certainly wouldn’t have taken long for the typical farmer to acquire plenty of feedsack material. Flour, sugar, feed, seeds, rice, and fertilizer were all packaged in the sacks. The quality of the cloth varied with the item it carried. Sugar sacks, for example, were much finer in weave.
Once feedsack prints appeared on the scene, magazines and pattern companies were quick to take notice of their popularity and publish patterns to encourage novel use of the prints. The bag manufacturers themselves also wrote ‘how-to’ pamphlets. Nothing was overlooked: one could even use the strings from feedsacks in knitting and crocheting.
By the thirties, thanks to the enforced frugality of the Great Depression, feedsack mania hit an all time high: textile designers were hired by feedsack manufacturers, sacks were produced with pre-printed patterns for dolls, stuffed animals, appliqué and quilt blocks, and feedsacks were sold and traded by women looking to get the perfect print. Matching fabrics and even matching wrapping papers were available, too.
Some sacks were printed as a series, such as the 1935 Sea Island sugar doll series; the entire doll series included Uncle Sam [shown], Scotty scotty dog, Uluk Eskimo doll, Minka Russian doll and Gobo, Indian doll.
Many sacks had themes. Some of the more collectible sacks now are those with Walt Disney themes (Davy Crockett, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy), movie themes (Gone with the Wind), comic book themes (Buck Rogers) or nursery rhyme themes (Little BoPeep, Humpty Dumpty).
By 1941 thirty-one textile mills manufactured bag goods. Bemis Brothers (MN), Fulton Bag & Cotton Mills, and Cottons Mills of Atlanta had their own textile mills. Other major bag manufacturers and suppliers were Chase, Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet, Staley and Lone Star. A 1942 estimate showed that three million women and children of all income levels were wearing print feedbag garments.
After WWII, technological innovations provided more sanitary and effective packaging made of heavy paper and plastic containers. It was cost effective, too. A cotton bag cost 32 cents to make, as opposed to 10 cents for the paper bag. By 1948 this new industry cornered more than half of the bag market and the era of feedsack fashion drew to a close.
sources: “Identification and Value Guide to Textile Bags,” by Anna Lue Cook, 1990, Krause Publications