Sow to Sewn
Prior to the Civil War, food staples, grain, seed, and animal feed were packed and shipped in wooden barrels and boxes or tin storage containers. These types of containers were heavy and expensive to ship; wooden containers leaked and tin ones rusted. Producers needed better and lighter weight packaging.
In 1846 with the invention of the “stitching machine”, cloth bags with heavy duty seams which would hold up to wear and tear became commercially possible. Initially, feed and seed sacks were plain cotton, jute, or burlap, whose capacity was roughly one barrel or half barrel. Sacks could vary in size from as small as one pound sugar sacks to sacks for cotton that were up to 12 feet long. In 1943, the War Production Board standardized feed and seed sack sizes. The six standard sizes were 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 pounds. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were approximately 42 companies making cloth feed and seed sacks.
Affectionately known as “Chicken Linen”, “Hen House Linen”, or “Pretties”, feed and seed sacks were a source of yard goods for farm and ranch women from the 1920’s through the 1960’s. These colorful feed, seed, sugar, and flour bags were turned into aprons, dresses, children’s clothing, shirts, underwear, dishtowels, pillowcases, and curtains. Sugar sacks were small and soft enough that many women used them as baby diapers. Plain sacks were used to line quilts while printed fabrics were used to create brightly colored quilt tops.
When the side seam of a 50 pound sack was opened, it resulted in a usable piece of cloth measuring 34” X 38” and a 100 pound sack measured 39” X 46”. Three yards of fabric, or three 100 pound sacks of matching color and pattern, was the minimum a woman needed to make herself a dress.
By the late 1930’s, sack manufacturers realized that printing a variety of attractive colors and patterns was a brilliant marketing strategy. Competition to produce desirable fabrics became so keen that some companies hired New York fabric designers. Sacks were printed with florals, geometrics, stripes, border prints, polka dots, birds, animals, and an array of children’s prints. Additionally, for children, they produced sacks printed with cut-out and sew dolls and stuffed animals. In the early 1940’s Bemis Brothers Bag Company introduced Bemaron bags. These bags were made of rayon for blouses, dresses, underwear, slips, and scarves. Bemis also made cambric, chambray, denim, percale, and toweling.
By 1942 estimates, three million women and children of all income levels were wearing feedbag garments. Magazines and pattern companies published patterns specifically for use with sacks. They even published patterns for knitting and crocheting with the strings from the sacks.
Contests sponsored by bag manufacturers and the National Cotton Council were held throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Women entered their clothing, toys, crib quilts, aprons, pillowcases, child’s play-sets, and luncheon sets in fairs. The winning creations paid off in cash, sewing machines, appliances, and even Hollywood vacations.