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How Midwestern Women Pioneered Feed Sack Fashion

Thrift Style

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Above image credit: A display of feed sack patterns at the Thrift Style exhibit now showing the Johnson County Museum. (Catherine Hoffman | Flatland)

If you had no idea that rural Kansas and Missouri birthed a nationwide fashion trend that lasted for decades, you’re not alone.

An advertisement from St. Louis bag company Bemis Bro. Bag Co.
An advertisement from St. Louis bag company Bemis Bro. Bag Co. showing how to use bags to make a dress. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)

The Great Depression brought unprecedented levels of poverty, and the Dust Bowl put those in rural America in particularly dire straits. But as purse strings tightened, Midwestern women found a new way to stitch together the essentials.

Women turned feed sacks, flour sacks, sugar sacks and other commodity bags into household items. Dresses were most popular, but the cotton bags also were used for aprons, quilts, baby clothes, curtains and towels.

“Even the original thread that held them together could be taken out and recycled and reused,” said Andrew Gustafson, the curator of interpretation at the Johnson County Museum.

The museum is the temporary home of the Thrift Style exhibit. Thrift Style memorializes the feed sack movement and features dresses, quilts and other materials made from feed sacks in the 20th century.

A feed sack dress dating from 1935 now on display as part of the Thrift Style exhibit at the Johnson County Museum.
A feed sack dress dating from 1935 now on display as part of the Thrift Style exhibit at the Johnson County Museum. (Catherine Hoffman | Flatland)

“It was just fascinating to me, the resourcefulness of people and to be able to take a common everyday object, find a new use for it, and that really allowed them to express a sense of creativity and met a need,” said Marla Day, the curator of Thrift Style.

According to the exhibit, “the late 19th and early 20th century was a time of market competition, brand development, and the rise of creative advertising that helped one product stand apart from the rest.”

Manufacturers started to take notice that even though men were picking up the grain from the store, it was their wives telling them what to purchase. In response, companies started to print attractive patterns on their cotton sacks and buyers started to show preference based on the pattern instead of its contents.

Asa Bales of the Southwest Milling Co. in Missouri was the first to patent patterned cloth sacks to be used for dresses. But he only specified a gingham pattern, which opened the floodgates for other companies to print their own designs.

The FSA (Farm Security Administration) home supervisor helped this woman make her dress of flour sacks and decorate her curtain with splatter work in Osage Farms, Missouri, 1939.
The FSA (Farm Security Administration) home supervisor helped this woman make her dress of flour sacks and decorate her curtain with splatter work in Osage Farms, Missouri, 1939. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)

A dress for an adult woman often took two or three feed sacks, so it became commonplace for women to hold swap parties to trade for the patterns they needed.

“These feed sacks presented them with a way to continue to live, to make their own towels or to make their own clothing or pillow shams, things that they needed to live, but also things that beautified their homes,” Gustafson said.

Because of the region’s high levels of agricultural production, the feed sack movement primarily took root in Kansas and Missouri. Even though they were simply setting out to provide for their family in a cost-effective way, these women set off a nation-wide trend.

In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe even paid tribute to the bygone era.

Both Gustafson and Day feel that there is a lot that we can learn from the feed sack era.

The wife of Farm Security Agent client holding dresses she made from flour sacks in Marshall, Texas, 1939.
The wife of Farm Security Agent client holding dresses she made from flour sacks in Marshall, Texas, 1939. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)

“We don’t have to be such a throwaway society,” Day said.

They both agreed that the pandemic has taught people to be more resourceful and learn to make do with what they have.

“It’s a lesson for us in thinking outside the box and trying to make the best of your situation,” Gustafson said.

The Thrift Style exhibit will be at the Johnson County Museum until May 1. The museum is open Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and admission costs $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children aged 1-18. 

Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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