After my mother died nine years ago, I came across a photo taken in 1952. It shows my mother, my brother, my sister and me. I recognized the outfit I was wearing as the one my mom made for me from a feeding bag.
When I was eight, I thought I looked very stylish wearing the green and white striped halter top and shorts and halter top in purple, pink and yellow. Looking closely at the photo, I think my mom’s blouse and my brother’s shirt may have been made from food bags, but neither my brother nor I can remember if this is the case.
My brother remembers my mother had lots of sewing patterns and exchanged patterns with the neighbors. He also remembers my father taking our family to Hibbing to a Singer dealership to buy a sewing machine.
At the time of the photo, we were living in Balkan in a two-room house with no basement. We had electricity, but no indoor plumbing. Even though the money wasn’t plentiful, life was good.
Let’s go back to the family photo. It was very faded and wrinkled, but I nevertheless thought it should be on display at the Heritage Museum in Virginia where I was working at the time. Whenever I showed visitors around the museum, they seemed to like to hear me talk about holding the feeding bag.
Since many people today are unaware of feed bag clothing, I have spoken with people, read books, and scoured the internet to find out more.
For years, manufacturers have stored and transported goods in barrels, cans, and cans, all bulky and bulky containers. The bags would be more easily handled and could be stacked better. However, originally the bags were sewn by hand which required a lot of work.
In 1846 Elias Howe invented the sewing machine, which quickly changed the way many items were packaged. Cotton was inexpensive and a good fabric to hold flour, animal feed, rice, sugar, tobacco, and other products. Although we call them food bags, 52% of them were actually flour bags.
Most of the early bags were white or light brown and had brand names printed on them with permanent ink. Frugal housewives would use these bags for tea towels. The flour sacked tea towels that many of us buy today are called “flour sacks” because they are made from soft, absorbent cotton similar to the cotton that was used for sacks to wrap flour. Underwear could be made from these early bags because you wouldn’t mind if “Pillsbury Flour” was printed on your behind. A hundred pound bag of flour could be made into men’s underpants.
In 1924, Asa Bales, a carpenter from Missouri, filed a patent for bags made from a checkered fabric that would be suitable for sewing clothes. What a design! Bales assigned the patent to the George Plant Milling Company of St. Louis. As I understand it, the patent was only for the plaid fabric.
Soon after, other bag makers produced bags with a wide variety of designs, including floral prints, stripes, and plaids. Imagine how this affected sales! A woman was likely to choose a particular product because she liked the print on the bag. She can also buy three or four bags at a time to make sure she has enough fabric for the project she had in mind. Women probably had a lot more say in what bagged products their husbands also bought.
So, you might be wondering how you could sew clothes from a bag. Once the bag was empty of the product it contained, the bag was washed and the seams removed so you had a flat piece of fabric. The seams of the bags were sewn on one side and on the bottom with a chain stitch which could be easily removed by cutting the chain in a corner and pulling the upper thread.
Once bags were made from fabric with patterns, manufacturers wisely used paper labels or washable ink to imprint brand names on the bags. Typically a 50 pound bag, when opened, measured 24 inches by 38 inches and a 100 pound bag measured 39 inches by 46 inches. You would buy a template and calculate how many bags were needed to complete the project.
Schools have been established in America to train women in household skills, including teaching them how to use food bags. Sheets, diapers, skirts, curtains, dresses, shirts, aprons, pot holders, tea towels, pajamas and quilts were among the manufactured items.
Some bags came with a rag doll printed on it that you could cut out, sew together, etc. Some came with embroidery designs stamped on them. I’ve read that some people have even crocheted doilies using the string from the seam of the bag, but I think that goes too far.
Food bag clothing was common during the Depression and then declined for a few years. It became popular again during World War II when most cotton fabrics were requisitioned for troops, but food bags were not.
For a while, food bags were so popular that you could buy them, new and used, from Macy’s and Sears etc. By 1964, store-bought clothing was affordable to many, and the manufacture of cotton supply bags came to an end and paper bags were widely used. Many of us remember the paper sugar bags that were sewn at the top with a chain stitch that was easily removed by pulling on the top string.
For months now, I’ve been asking almost everyone I come in contact with if they remember any food bag clothes. I had very little luck though; my friend Jeanne Maki shared her experience with me.
When Jeanne was 15, she made herself a light aqua culotte and wanted a blouse to go with the culottes. Her grandmother encouraged Jeanne’s uncle to buy pet food in bags with small flowers of turquoise and lilac color on a light background. Jeanne’s grandmother washed the bags, removed the seams and gave the material to Jeanne.
Using a Simplicity pattern, Jeanne made a blouse to match her culottes. Jeanne doesn’t have a picture of the blouse, but she remembers it well and says it had short sleeves and was close to the body.
Jeanne becomes an exceptional seamstress. Among other things, she sewed a coat for her mother, two lined suits and an evening dress to wear to the prom. Jeanne remembers that her family always had a lot of white, flour-sacked tea towels in the kitchen, many with embroidered designs.
Recently my husband and I visited the Nelimark Homestead Museum in Embarras. What a fabulous place! They have great exhibits in several buildings and very friendly volunteers. I was delighted to see a bag of Gold Medal flour on display as well as a blanket made from bags containing Co-op Happy Champion Seeds.
Jeannine Bjornrud, museum volunteer, showed me an apron she had made. Mary Honkola had given Jeannine a sack of flour with a pretty print of pansy. Jeannine used her artistic and creative talents to combine the pansy print with a plaid print and some rickrack to put together a gorgeous apron.
Making clothing from food bags was an important part of American history. It was an interesting time when a woman would have a real sense of accomplishment if she could sew clothes and household items for herself and her family very inexpensively.
Betty Pond lives in Mountain Iron with her husband, Randy. She is a frequent contributor to Hometown Focus.