Fremont County, Iowa

Great Depression
by Evelyn Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of March 30, 2009

Have you ever had tea towels, table clothes, curtains or bloomers made out of feed sacks? If so you lived through the Great Depression that was the scourge of the land in the 1930s.

When items from that period first began to come into the Fremont County Historical Museum some of us were surprised. They aren’t antique, we’d think, but wiser heads prevailed and we accepted a growing collection of artifacts that were part of daily life during that difficult time.

Using feed sacks for sewing projects started far earlier than the 30s. In the late 1800s, when food staples, grain, seed, and animal feed, started to be stored in tightly stitched cloth bags, thrifty farm wives quickly discovered that the cotton bags were a cheap source of fabric Manufacturers began to take advantage of this interest and started making sacks in various prints and solid colors as a way to sell more feed. Magazines and pattern companies began publishing patterns to use for feed sack prints.

Wasting nothing, women used the strings from the sacks in knitting and crocheting projects. The white sacks were great in jelly making to strain the juice from the fruit pulp. They were also used to strain lard into lard cans at butchering time. Many women dyed white sacks for greater variety. They could use commercial dyes but to save money they also used pokeberries, sumac, black walnuts and other plants that made good natural dyes. Sacks soaked overnight in sour milk would be whiter in the morning.

During World War II, feed sacks became even more important to the farm women because cotton materials were scarce; the army needed quantities of cotton for the service men's uniforms.

Homemade quilts were often pieced of leftover scraps, or from still good parts of worn out clothing. With so many different prints available, any quilt pattern was possible. Matched sacks were used for the quilt lining, sometimes matching a block in the quilt top. Four or five large sacks sewn lengthwise, with a seam up the middle was usually enough to line a quilt. Thus whole quilts were often made from feed sacks.

A list of uses for feed sacks is long: clothes, toys, underwear, aprons, pillow cases, diapers, laundry bags, curtains, table cloths, towels and dish cloths. Some reports state that by 1942 three million women and children were wearing clothes made out of feed sacks.

Empty sacks could be bought at feed stores or from neighbors who had more than they needed. In many areas a dry goods store bought the washed and ironed sacks for a quarter a piece and resold them. An auction sale or church bazaar often had a stack of sacks to sell.

Vintage feed sacks may be found today on the internet and Ebay, in flea markets and antique stores, at estate sales and, yes, in museums.

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Page updated on May 10, 2017 by Karyn Techau