Thursday, March 24, 2016

Flour Sack Dresses




I recently read a novel set in the ‘cowboy’ era of the 1860-70’s where the woman was wearing a ‘flour sack’ dress. Whereas that may have been true in a rare case, it certainly wasn’t wide spread.  

(No resources noted for picture on Pinterest.)
Throughout the later part of the 1800’s cotton sacks gradually replaced the barrels and crates that flour, stock feeds, and other such grain based products had been shipped and stored in for years. Made of unbleached cotton, these sacks were dull and had the same large logos that had previously been stamped onto the barrels. Getting rid of the logos was almost impossible—even with kerosene, lye soap and boiling. However, that didn’t stop women from utilizing the material. 

During that era, the bags weren’t suitable to make dresses. But they were usable, and frugal pioneers made rugs, towels, chair cushions, quilts and numerous other items from the sacks. Common items were nightgowns, diapers and underwear. The large logos were not an issue for these garments because they were worn under other clothing or in privacy.

It wasn’t until well after the turn of the century that companies started to make bags using bright colors and designs. Printed on logos and company names were replaced with easy to remove paper tags and labels. Companies hoped the colorful and reusable bags would boosts sales which had fallen drastically for almost every business at the onset of the depression.  The government supported the recycling of feed sacks, calling it a necessity due to a shortage of cotton during WWll.

(Picture from Treasures and Textiles.)
The sacks themselves were not very large, and several were needed for most every garment and this too brought about other thrifty activities. Bags were often sold, both to other people and/or back to the store/company to be reused, and community ‘sack’ exchanges were commonly held for people to trade amongst each other in order collect enough sacks of the same color and print. 

The popularity of the bags continued through the next couple of decades. Magazines, pattern makers, newspapers and the feed/flour companies created articles, booklets, and even dissolving ink patterns printed right on the sacks for women to make the most out of every yard.  

Sewing contests became another popular activity, locally and nationally. Often sponsored by companies in order to show off their latest prints, woman enjoyed the opportunity to show off their sewing skills. 

This dress, (photo from the National Museum of American History) was sewn by Dorothy Overall from Caldwell, Kansas in 1959 and took second place in the Cotton Bag Sewing contest. 

Why some believe our ‘age’ of recycle/reuse/repurpose and dispose properly is a new-fangled way of thinking, I believe in some instances, such as the flour sack eras, we are ‘behind the times’. 

My next release will be in April. When a Cowboy Says I Do is one story in Western Spring Weddings. Little does seamstress Ellie Alexander know that by promising to sew her best friend’s wedding gown will lead to her own spring wedding!


8 comments:

  1. The flower-printed sacks must have begun in the 1920s because my mom talked of wearing flower sack dresses and the difficulty of getting a new flower sack with the same print to have enough material for a dress. That's what she wore to school.

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    1. Yes, Caroline, during the 1920's is when companies started using colorful prints that people sought and bargained with each other to get enough to make a complete outfit.

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  2. Great post! I was thinking about these the other day. My grandmother used them for dish towels.

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    1. Thanks, Paty. Some companies printed patterns on the sacks so women could embroidery their 'dish towels'.

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  3. Lauri--I don't know why someone hasn't thought to write about Flour Sack dresses before now. This is a great topic, and now from reading your well-researched post, I know things I never knew before. I wonder if printed flour sacks were available in the 40s. I thought my little sister and I had dresses made of flour sacks, but now I think I might be wrong about that.
    I especially like the idea of recycling, although I doubt those women then thought of that term. We think it's the "in" thing to do, but then? It was a necessity. Thanks so much. And congratulations on your bride books and your successful writing career.

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    1. Thanks, Celia. And yes, flour sack dresses where going strong in the 40's! And into the 50's. The black and white dress pictured in the post won the sack dress sewing contest in 1959.

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  4. My family never held with the belief that things were to be tossed out. I recall doorknobs with rubber bands on them and my grandfather kept pie tins to use in the garden and paper bags because ya never know when ya might need one. My maternal grandmother made clothes and household items out f flour sacks, and honestly, they were very nice. Of course, back in my youth we didn't have all these plastic things. Milk came in glass bottles as well as soda. There were no plastic bags--all paper. I know older folks say this all the time, however, I believe those days were simpler and kinder to the environment.
    I so enjoyed reading your post on flour sack dresses. I like reading well researched articles. All the best to you, Lauri.

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    1. Oh, Sarah, your mention of rubber bands on door knobs made me smile! I'd forgotten all about those! And I still ask for paper bags whenever possible (and when I forget my reusable ones). We always used paper bags to drain fried foods on--mainly fish and donuts. I too believe those days were kinder on the environment!

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