I never thought I would get excited about printed sacks, but my interest in flour and food sacks and how they were used over the decades is increasing! I wrote in an early blog about a Canadian printed flour bag (TRC 2017.0422), which was sent to Belgium during the First World War (1914-1918), where it was embroidered by refugees. Thousands of similar bags made the same trip and some were then shipped back to Canada and the USA where they were given away as souvenirs, as well as sold in order to raise more money for buying and sending food to Belgium.
This item came with a group of embroideries given to the TRC by Pepin van Rooijen of Pepin Press, Amsterdam. Last week the TRC was given another group of textiles by Pepin, which included over thirty printed food sacks from the USA (for instance TRC 2017.1360). These were large bags made of cotton that were used for corn, flour, sugar, rice, and so forth in the USA and Canada.
Bag and sack producers soon discovered that if the cotton sacks were decorated with a colourful printed design, then people would buy their bags (and contents). By the 1920’s garments and household objects (such as curtains and quilts) made out of these food sacks became an economic necessity in many poorer families. With the Great Depression of the 1930’s even more families depended on these sacks to provide basic textile necessities for family and household use. The sacks came in various sizes and qualities depending on what was being stored in them – flour bags tended to be a finer cloth than, for example, those used for maize or sugar.
Most sacks were between 75-110 cm in length and 45-50 cm wide when folded in half (to create the sack). Lengths of cloth can often be identified as ex-food sacks by a line of course sewing (or the resulting needle holes) along two edges. Sometimes the name of the manufacturer was also printed onto the cloth (often using a washable ink), while on other occasions a pre-printed label was used that could be peeled off.
Mexican flour sack, TRC 2014.0194The designs used for the food sacks varied considerably – with each printing companying vying to get the most popular designs and so sell the most cloth to the food sellers. The patterns ranged from stripes geometric shapes, stylised flowers to images of pigs, horse racing and cowboys at work. The cheaper ones were in one colour, while more up market variations had two or three colours.
By the 1940’s thousands of metres of cloth were being printed each year to supply the need for decorative food sacks that could be bought, swapped and generally saved until enough pieces of the right colour and design were acquired that could be made into garments, such as underwear, dresses, skirts, blouses, aprons and head coverings. In order to encourage people/women to make more of such garments, various booklets were published on how to make the most out of these printed lengths of material. There were also large and popular annual competitions for the best and most ingenious use of such sacks. Courses were taught at local colleges and in people’s homes in how to make sacks into garments for domestic use, as well as for sale.
The production of printed food sacks stopped in the 1960’s as people became more affluent and paper, later plastic, bags took over the role of the printed cloth forms. But for many (older) people the role of food sack garments remains a powerful reminder of their childhood and the important role of make-do and mend and not to waste anything that can be re-used.
While looking for more information and examples, I suddenly remembered that there are three Mexican flour sacks in the TRC Collections (for instance TRC 2014.0194), as well as a blouse made from a flour sack (TRC 2015.0192). I also came across, in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection, some early 20th century images of Syrian and Armenian refugee children (probably in Lebanon) wearing USA flour sacks, and of poor Americans in the southern states of the USA wearing similar sacks.
Gillian Vogelsang, 29 May 2017