The 29th October of 1929 witnessed the Wall Street Crash. It was followed by a series of droughts and harvest failures that resulted in the ‘Great Depression’, which was to last over a decade in America. The acute lack of money meant that many already poor families literally had very little to wear. There are numerous contemporary photographs of women and children dressed in sacks and very little else. Not surprisingly, the widespread availability of a specific type of cheap material that could be used to create garments became very popular and the bag and sack companies, following on earlier developments, started to produce an even wider range of materials, qualities, sizes and designs.
Before the Depression, the brand names of the various bag and product companies were often printed on the cloth with special inks that could be relatively easily washed off, so the sacks could be used for clothing. Such sacks often came with washing instructions to help the housewife remove the printed messages. By the 1920’s paper labels started to appear, which were deliberately introduced because they could be simply soaked off. These labels became more common during the Depression when the sacks were widely used for clothing.
In the 1930’s, women came together in groups to sew, swop and save for particular printed patterns. In addition, itinerant pedlars travelled with empty feedsacks to more remote areas to satisfy the demand for the printed cloth. More and more commercial, and even academic groups were set up to inform women and girls about how to use feedsacks for a variety of purposes. One of these projects was the Georgia Emergency Relief Administration, who organised:
Classes for young girls who longed for pretty things but could not afford to buy them and could not make them. They were taught to admire real beauty and cleanliness and to make the most of simple and inexpensive materials. Emphasis was placed on the use of cotton material, buying on a limited budget, remodelling and suitability. They were taught to use patterns, to design, to fit one another and to make dresses from Dixie Crystal Sugar sacks, etc. (Jones and Park 1993:93).
Many of these textiles were sent to Canada, where they became an important source of textiles as well. Some of the dresses in the exhibition actually derive from this country, rather than the U.S.