In the mid-19th century, heavy canvas or linen feedsacks (sometimes spelled as “feed sacks”) replaced many barrels and tins for the storage and transport of flour, animal feed, and other bulk goods. The invention of the lockstitch sewing machine, patented by Elias Howe in 1846, made these bags practical for repeated use—the farmer’s name was often stamped on his bag so it could be filled back up. By the late 1800s, textile mills were producing strong, inexpensive cotton, which quickly usurped canvas as the preferred material for feedsacks.
Farmer’s wives took advantage of this new source of essentially free fabric by turning the empty cotton sacks into everything from dishrags to dresses. Some feed companies, alerted to this reuse of their bags, began to print their sacks in gaily colored patterns—since it usually took more than one bag to make a dress, the idea was to give the farmer an incentive to keep buying their products.
One of the many interesting attributes of late-19th and early-20th century feedsacks are the odd weights that were stamped on them. The weight of 196 pounds came from barrels, 98 pounds from half barrels, and so on. Sizes weren’t standardized—100, 50, 25, 10, 5, and 2—until 1943.
Nor were all feedsacks created equal. Those designed to hold sugar, flour, and salt, for example, had the tightest weave. At the other end of the spectrum was a fabric called osnaberg, which had a low thread count and was used primarily to bag animal feed.
At the outset of World War II, there were dozens of U.S. textile mills producing feedsack material, from Bemis Brothers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Percy Kent of Buffalo, New York. Particularly collectible are feedsacks with prints depicting Disney characters or scenes from “Gone with the Wind,” as well as sacks that had patterns on them to help a busy homemaker turn them into an apron or doll.
In fact, by 1942, an estimated three-million Americans wore at least one article of clothing made out of a feedsack, but by the end of the decade, cloths bags gave way to less-expensive paper.