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    Vintage Feedsacks | Summer 2015 Out Here Magazine

    With her first feedsacks, given by a friend, Edie handmade a quilt using the old-fashioned whirligig pattern.

    Collector cherishes Depression-era fabric

    By Marti Attoun

    Photography by Amy Stroth

     

    Printed on cotton cloth are dime-sized mama cats looking spiffy in blue bows as they parade their kittens. The fabric delights Edie McGinnis, just as it charmed farm women during the Great Depression.

    Edie has collected some 2,000 vintage feedsacks — the general term used for the solid white and printed cotton commodity bags that once packaged sugar, salt, flour, meal, and livestock feed.

    A room of her Kansas City home is heaped with colorful bags and quilts that she’s sewn from the fabric.

    Called “chicken linen,” feedsacks were a bonus that came with buying essentials for the farm and home. During lean times and wartime rationing, women welcomed the bags, which they recycled into everything from curtains to undergarments.

    “They served such a wonderful purpose during hard times,” Edie says. “You could have dish towels for your kitchen, a cowboy shirt for your son, a dress for your little girl.”

    The longtime seamstress became fascinated with feedsacks about 30 years ago after a friend gave her a stack of 10 patterned bags.

    “I spread them all out on the floor and thought about making a quilt with nothing but sacks,” she says. She considered several quilt patterns before choosing an old-fashioned whirligig hexagon design.

    “It was a true scrap quilt and I could visualize how it’d look made of feedsacks,” Edie says.

    The quilt pattern had been published in 1936 in the Kansas City Star, and that added to its personal significance for Edie. She recently had begun working at the newspaper and since has become the Star’s quilt columnist and authored more than a dozen books about quilts, including Feedsacks! Beautiful Quilts from Humble Beginnings.

    In the 1930s, Sea Island Sugar held the copyrights to doll patterns on their bags. Characters such as Little Red Riding Hood could be made once the bag was emptied.

    On a whim, Edie decided to make each block of the whirligig — all 175 of them — with a different feedsack and embarked on a hunt for the historical bags.

    “I began to haunt estate auctions, flea markets, and antique shops. I asked my friends to keep their eye out for feedsacks,” she says.

    In those early collecting years, she paid $1 to $3 for each bag. Today, some rare patterned bags, such as ones printed with scenes from the movie Gone With the Wind, fetch closer to $100.

    The more she collected, the more enamored Edie became with the history of the humble bags and the memories they sparked.

    “There (doesn’t) seem to be any halfway feelings about the bags,” she says. “People either hate them or they love them.”

    She recalls her older sister’s pride in sewing her first 4-H project — a gathered skirt and a matching fringed shawl from feedsacks.

    But others who wore clothing made from the earlier feedsacks that were plain white with product labels — produced before the feedsacks came in colorful designs — didn’t much care for them and found them embarrassing.

    Edie McGinnis collects feedsacks, used by farm women during the Great Depression for clothes, dish towels, curtains, and other necessities.

    Until the 1920s, textile bags were made of white goods with the company’s logo printed in bold ink on the bags. Women fussed over removing the ink, rubbing lard into the dye and scrubbing the bags on a board with lye soap. Eventually, companies replaced the pesky ink labels with paper labels.

    Richard K. Peek, vice president of Percy Kent Bag Co. in Kansas City, was one of the first to recognize the marketing potential in using print fabric that homemakers could reuse for home projects. He came up with the idea after seeing white sugar and flour sacks sewn into chair covers and curtains in a restaurant.

    By the 1930s, most bag companies across the United States offered charming cotton bags printed with colorful bouquets, polka dots, gingham checks, bicycles, boats, planes, trains, and nursery rhyme and Disney characters. In Edie’s collection are Little Bo Peep, Three Little Pigs, Humpty Dumpty, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Alice in Wonderland, and Daniel Boone.

    “What’s interesting is the printed bags took the buying power out of the man’s hands and put it into the hands of the woman,” Edie says.

    The woman of the house often selected the product depending on future sewing projects she had in mind for the package. A 100-pound feed bag provided fabric that measured 40 inches by 50 inches and a 100-pound flour bag offered a piece that measured 36 inches by 42 inches.

    Along with an estimated 20,000 prints, bag companies offered precious premiums printed on the bags, including patterns and instructions for aprons, embroidered dishtowels, puppets, and dolls. Quite collectible are Sea Island Sugar Co.’s series of “Dolls of the World” printed in the 1930s.

    “During the ’30s there were so many people hurt by the Dust Bowl and this might be the only toy your child would get,” Edie says.

    By the 1950s, cotton bags fell by the wayside as they were replaced by strong, multi-walled paper bags. Economic times improved and women bought ready-made clothing. Home sewing became more hobby than necessity and seamstresses shopped for their fabric from a bolt — not from a feed or grocery store.

    But for Edie, the allure of feedsacks will never fade.

    “Feedsacks are woven into the fabric of our culture,” she says. “I like the stories they tell.”

     

    Marti Attoun is a Joplin, Mo., writer.

    Summer 2015 Out Here Magazine Home Page