Monday, 3 February 2020

Flour Power

Last week, this picture popped up on Bob's Facebook feed, and underneath was a caption "we should be doing this now"
Bob thought [correctly] that I might want to learn more, so showed me the picture, and left me to fall down the rabbit hole of Internet research.
Here's what I discovered... 
The story is more complicated than "feed companies wanted to help Depression hit families in the 1930s" It goes back further than that...and it wasn't "pure kindness" that started it, but clever marketing... 
Back in the early1800s, US flour, seed and feed merchants starting using fabric sacks rather than barrels to transport their goods. Initially they used 'osnaburg' a cheap, coarse woven cloth, originally linen based. This was the fabric used to make clothes for the slaves on the plantations. 
Then they began using cotton. Often it was printed with a simple pattern, as well as the company logo. Thrifty famers' wives would unstitch the sacks, wash the fabric, and make household goods [bags, curtains etc] and also garments. 
Someone noticed that they could use "feminine attention to attract the masculine dollar" and by the beginning of the 1920s many companies were producing sacks designed to be repurposed, along with sewing patterns and instructions on removing the wording.
Men complained that they were sent to fetch multiple matching sacks [you need three for a woman's dress] and they were to be in blue floral or something similar. The manufacturers even altered the stitching to chainstitch for simpler dismantling  [easier to undo as it is a single thread] By the time of the Depression in the 30s, such thrift became even more important, and again in the War Years. 
Despite the attractiveness of the finished product, there was still a stigma attached to feedsack dresses. They marked you out as "poor" 
When a young Marilyn Monroe did a photo shoot in a dress made from a potato sack, people were quick to point out that her garment was very befitting to her humble origins. 
The printed cotton sacks continued into the 1960s. But then heavy paper and plastic fabrics took over. 

But it was a good thing. Reusing, recycling and helping those in need, as well as clever marketing. 
Why has the picture at the top of this post recently started doing the rounds? Well back in 2009 a historian called Kendra Brandes in Illinois researched feedsack garments very thoroughly. You can read her work here. A few years later Margaret Powell added further research. Then in 2019 somebody saw the picture of the guy and the sacks, read the story quickly and assumed incorrectly that it was "pure kindness". 
I'd love it if more manufacturers used fabric bags instead of plastic. Not sure Rosie would want Grandma Ang to make her a potato sack dress though. 


  1. An interesting post Angie. I had heard of feedsack dresses bit did not know where and when they started.

  2. A very interesting post. I am not sure if this would be a good idea today, air miles need to be considered. The comment about the farmers searching for certain patterns made me smile, I can just imagine the replies to this suggestion.

  3. It's a delightful story. I like the idea of such things being reused in that way. A lot if us lack those sewing skills now which is a shame though.

  4. As you said, more marketing strategy than kindness, but, I do like the reuse aspects of it. :)

  5. Only Marilyn could look so good in a potato sack!!!


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