by Suzanne Labry
When I was five-years old and my brother was eight, we went to live with our aunt and uncle on their cotton farm on the South Plains of Texas.
We had cattle, pigs, and chickens, and the animals’ feed came in percale bags that Aunt Neva was choosy about selecting. She also bought our flour, corn meal, and sugar in cotton bags, and it would not surprise me to learn that one of the criteria for working at the grocery store in our little nearby town was the ability to be patient with customers like my aunt who selected their “staples” not by their brand name but rather by the fabric bag they came in.
It was not unusual in the least to see women directing a stock clerk to restack the heavy bags in order to get to one with a particular floral print or colorful design that invariably seemed to be at the bottom of the pile.
From these bags, my Aunt Neva fashioned not only quilt blocks, but also all sorts of other things, from dishtowels (we called them cup towels), pillowcases, and kitchen curtains to articles of clothing. One of the first things she made for me was a bonnet, because my brother and I were tasked with hoeing weeds from the cotton field and it was hot work under the Texas sun.
She made a bonnet for my brother, too, and made him wear it—a fashion humiliation that my little-sister self found particularly amusing. She also made me my own little apron and many simple summer blouses, among other things. In fact, there was a period in my early life when a fair bit of my wardrobe consisted of feed sack fabric (also known as commodity bags, chicken linens, pretties, or hen house linens).
It may surprise some who associate feed sacks only with the Great Depression or earlier time periods to know that the printed textile bags were still commonly used in rural areas during the 1950s and 1960s.
It is true that the first bags to be made from “dress-quality” fabric began to be produced in the mid-1920s with the red gingham of Gingham Girl Flour. Other bag manufacturers rapidly followed suit in the 1930s, but during World War II, patterned feed sacks became especially popular.
Commodity bags were exempt from the redistribution of certain types of cotton fabric to the military for the war effort, and women on the home front were happy to have feed sacks for their sewing needs. Wartime publications such as the National Cotton Council’s A Bag of Tricks for Home Sewing (1945) stated, “A yard saved is a yard gained, for victory” and gave ideas for using printed commodity bags at home.
In a 1946 Time magazine article entitled “Women: Foul Rumor,” a manager from Pillsbury Flour was quoted as saying, “They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls’ underpants.”
As paper began to replace cotton in the bag manufacturing industry in the 1950s, the National Cotton Council partnered with the Textile Bag Manufactures Association in an attempt to slow that crossover by sponsoring the Cotton Bag Sewing Queen Contest.
The contest was held at state fairs nationwide throughout the 1950s and 1960s and participants were encouraged to “Buy your commodities in cotton—sew the bags to win cash, sewing machines, home appliances and other valuable gifts including a Free Vacation in Hollywood! A full week of exciting and glamorous entertaining in Southern California awaits the 1960 Cotton Bag Sewing Queen and her first alternate. Each may bring a companion of her choosing and select her mode of transportation—by jet, if available!” (Smithsonian)
My Aunt Neva never entered a Cotton Bag Sewing Queen Contest. I doubt if my (or my brother’s!) bonnet stiffened with “slats” of cardboard from a Big Chief writing tablet would have made the cut in any case. Nevertheless, she and many women like her made use of every scrap of the fabric that came her way via a sack of chicken feed or a bag of flour.