A certain American romance surrounds the women who, when forced out of necessity, either through poverty or war, made useful and, often times, beautiful quilts and clothes out of a lowly feed sack, a byproduct of consumer culture that is reborn in the hands of thrifty and ingenious American women. There is certainly a nostalgia that affects all memories surrounding the use of feedsacks, especially in quilting, but even though feedsack quilts are now remembered with fondness, through the 1930s to the 1950s, they were generally associated with poverty.
The quilts known today as “feedsack quilts” were mainly made during the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1940s. The feedsacks themselves were cotton bags meant to appeal to female shoppers who would then reuse the bags and thus instill brand loyalty to that flour, sugar, or chicken feed that the cotton bag contained. The marketing ploy was a huge success, first for the Bemis Brothers Bag Company and later for countless other textile bag manufacturers. In addition to being called feedsacks, they are also referred to as feed bags, cotton bags, or cotton sacks.
Originally, the white cotton bags were marked with the brand of flour or sugar or feed that it held and a housewife would have to experiment with ways of removing the dye. In response to the new-found potential market, textile bag companies then switched to paper labels that could be easily soaked off and would leave an unmarked length of ready-to-use cloth. Finding vintage feedsacks with labels is relatively rare today.
Even now, it is impossible to separate feedsack quilts from the Great Depression. Stories of thrift and ingenuity in the face of the economic devastation are popular to recount still today. Today, the thrifty use of feedsacks is romanticized against the wastefulness of today. Author and collector Susan Miller shares many in her book Vintage Feed Sacks: Fabric from the Farm. In another book, Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, a Pennsylvania woman who lived through the Great Depression remembers how excited she would be when looking at the feedsacks and dreaming of a new dress she would make from them. People remember feedsacks with pleasure and modern-day collectors of feedsacks and feedsack quilts treasure the stories that surround them and cultivate feelings of fondness.
Even though feedsacks are now remembered with fondness, it is important to note that many women of the 1930s were using feedsack fabric in their quilts out of desperation. For example, an article in the 1940s reflects on the earlier feedsack designs as having a highly-recognizable “badge of poverty.” In addition, many of the quilts made during the Great Depression favored utility over beauty. Because utilitarian quilts were the most heavily used, very few survive. Instead there are many special occasion quilts and show quilts in collections and museums. A now elderly woman recalls in a collection of West Virginia quilters that some quilts were reserved only for company and would be placed on the bed prior to receiving visitors. The surviving quilts give us a skewed understanding of what the majority of feedsack quilts looked like during the Depression years. Feedsacks were used for both utilitarian quilts and show quilts yet produced very different results.
First, the utilitarian quilts or “comforts” made out of necessity. Lack of money to purchase materials drove the use of feedsacks in quilts during the Great Depression and, later, during World War II. These comforters were often made of whole cotton sacks and then roughly tied Again, as these quilts saw the most use, they are also the least likely to survive. Their rough nature also deems them least likely to be collected by quilt collectors. Theya re usually crude and thick for warmth. They are constructed of whole feedsacks pieced edge-to-edge. There is often no border to the quilt; instead the binding comes from one side and is turned over onto the other side and stitched in place. The utilitarian quilt shown here is made with plain chicken feed sacks. The printed label of the feedsack still remains on the bottom corner.
Show quilts are easier to identify and come to the market quite often. Many times they have bright pastel colors often described as “cotton candy” colors. The patterns are very diverse and include applique as well as pieced qieces. “Sunbonnet Sues, Grandma’s Flower Garden, and Double Wedding Ring are only a few. They are often made like a traditional quilt with blocks and borders. Also, they often have store-purchased fabric in addition to the printed feedsacks. The quilt shown here for example, has a solid off-white ground which was likely store purchased.
It is very difficult if not in some case impossible to identify the cloth of a quilt as feedsack material or cotton from a bolt which was sold in a store. It has been established in feedsack research that because of trade practices, one cannot tell if a fabric originated as a feedsack. It is not correct to assume that because a fabric is rough or loosely woven, that it is a feedsack. The only way to positively identify a fabric as a feedsack fabric is to find the tell-tale holes left by the cord that once sewed the feedsack into shape as shown in the blue feedsack fabric below.
From Great Depression poverty came 1940s war scarcity and rationing that led to fabric shortages. The 1940s saw new feedsack users in women who would have otherwise used store-bought fabrics for quilts and clothing but were now forced due to war shortages to use feedsacks. Manufacturers began a rhetoric of patriotism. Esteemed quilt and fabric scholar Barbara Brackman points out that bag manufacturers were the driving force in promoting sewing projects for the home sewer. Several booklets were made by the industry that focused on the use of cotton bags for clothing and home goods. The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association as well as the National Cotton Council published the literature aimed at promoting use by the housewife and thus driving sales. The booklet A Bag of Tricks for Home Sewing was published in 1945 by the National Cotton Council. The booklets provide pictures of projects awarded prizes by the National Cotton Council that vary from using feedsacks to make car seat covers to window shades to pajamas to kitchen towels.
By the end of the Great Depression, fifty million flour and feed sacks were sold every year. With these staggering numbers, it is not surprising that the association of feedsacks with the Great Depression remained. Despite the attempts to market feedsacks as a fun and thrifty pastime that was no longer associated with poverty, the connotation continued. Similar to quilts, clothing continued to shift from home-made to ready-made.
Feedsacks continued to be used in clothing and household goods including quilts into the 1950s and even the 1960s. Evidence abounds of their continued use including references to ink removal in the popular Housewife’s Handbook of 1953. The continued use of cotton bags, however, does not mean that housewives were happy to utilize them. The 1950s saw an increase of wealth for much of the United States as the country gathered to supply war torn Europe. In post-World War II America, many people were moving continually away from the handmade and towards manufactured and ready-made products. In clothing, this trend meant an increase in store-bought ready-to-wear clothing. In bedding, the trend meant a shift away from handmade quilts and comforters to a preference for store-bought blankets.
As urban areas moved towards store-bought clothes and home goods, the use of feedsacks continued into the 1960s in rural areas of the United States. The use of feedsacks either signaled poverty or backwardness. For example, in an August 1950 article about aspiring actress Judy Canova, the writer dwells on the “hay-seed drawl” and feedsack dresses of the former “hillbilly.” Even in the 1950s, clothing and quilts made of feedsacks were still viewed negatively. The end of the 1950s also marked a decline in quiltmaking as a whole.
Therefore, the association between feedsacks and quilting with poverty is clear. Depression-era photos of migrant workers swathed in feed sacks were still fresh in many minds. Photos of the poorest of the poor had a lasting effect on how feedsacks were viewed. The pictures of utter poverty were ones that many people wanted to leave behind. After the economic devastation of the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, women were ready to leave quilting and feedsacks behind.
Luckily, today many of these feedsack quilts survive as whole quilts, quilt tops, and unfinished blocks. They can be found in many online listings, auction houses, and antique stores. Many of them are still being unearthed from the backs of closets and inherited from elderly relatives who lived through the Depression. Due to the great numbers, they have little market value except in the most superb examples. Still, enjoy these bright and cheery pieces which are a large part of quilt history and national history as well.