I remember hearing of “flour sack dresses” ever since my youth in the 1950s. But I recently discovered through rummaging the Internet that my concept of what the term meant was totally in error.
I don’t even remember when I first heard the term, and I’m suspicious that rather than “flour sack,” what I heard originally was “gunny sack dress.” What it conjured in my mind was the hillbilly world of Li’l Abner. I knew that a gunny sack was a tan sack made out of burlap—a thick, scratchy material with a big, open weave.
It was what hillbillies toted their “stuff” around in, particularly potatoes and the like. In the 1958 rock ‘n’ roll song “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry sang that country boy Johnny, who lived in a shack in the woods near New Orleans, carried his guitar in a gunny sack. And I assumed maybe he got that sack after it was emptied of the potatoes that came in it from the country store.
So when I heard about gunny sack dresses, I pictured this…
I was kind of surprised when looking for pics to use for this article that it wasn’t just the Girl Next Door who could pose in that kind of gunny sack in the 1950s.
Yes, that’s Marilyn.
As it turns out, in case you were wondering, “gunny” doesn’t have anything to do with guns. It is an Anglicized version of a word from India, “guni,” that means the same thing burlap means: that rough, open weave material shown above. It is woven from the coarse fibers of sisal or jute plants, and is much more similar to rough materials used for heavy rope than to the soft and fluffy fibers of cotton bolls that are turned into the various kinds of cotton fabrics.
In my youth…and that of my daughter Mona (who is now 45), gunny sacks were often used in telling humorous stories. When I asked Mona recently if she’d heard of “flour sack dresses,” she also immediately connected the idea with “gunny sacks,” and had only ONE memory connected to the term. A big I Love Lucy (re-run) fan in her childhood, she remembered an episode where Lucy and Ethel wore “gunny sack dresses.” I was surprised to find a whole description of that 1956 episode on a Lucy Wiki as I was doing research for this article.
After going to a fashion show of all the new chic Parisian styles, Lucy makes up her mind that she wants a Jacques Marcel dress. Ricky refuses to spend the money on another designer dress, not after buying Lucy a Don Loper original while in Hollywood the previous year. Lucy decides that she is going to go on a hunger strike until Ricky agrees to buy her a dress.
By the third day of the hunger strike, Lucy looks so gaunt and weak that Ricky is losing his resolve. He tries to force her to eat something, but Lucy refuses to break her vow. When Ricky leaves all upset, Lucy rushes to make a sandwich out of food that she has hidden throughout the hotel room. Ethel is Lucy’s food supplier, and she asks Lucy what to sneak in for dinner that night. Lucy asks for a roast chicken.
Ethel brings back the chicken, and Lucy hides it in a camera bag. Ricky returns with a very nice surprise- he bought Lucy a Jacques Marcel dress, because he can’t stand to see her starve. When Ricky goes to take a picture of Lucy in the new dress, he finds the roast chicken and realizes that Lucy has been faking the hunger strike all along. He intercepts the dress box when Lucy and Ethel play “monkey in the middle” with it, and he runs off.
To trick their wives as a way to get back at them for the phony hunger strike, Ricky suggests that he and Fred have dreses made out of “real potato sacks” and a phony Jacques Marcel label for their wives to wear. They also plan to make Lucy a hat out of a horse’s feedbag and Ethel a hat out of an empty champagne bucket.
Ricky and Fred proudly present the ugly outfits, and while Lucy and Ethel are puzzled by their strangeness, they’re still Paris originals (so they think), and they proudly wear them out to lunch at a cafe.
Everyone at the cafe is staring at Lucy and Ethel’s bold fashion choice, including Jacques Marcel, and soon, Ricky and Fred can’t keep from laughing and reveal the truth. Lucy and Ethel are beyond humiliated, and they cover themselves with a tablecloth as they flounce off back to the hotel.
Later, Ricky and Fred have apologized for pulling such a stunt. As part of the make-up agreement, Ricky must buy a Jacques Marcel dress for Lucy and pay for half of Ethel’s dress that Fred has to buy. On the way to the dress shop, the foursome stop to eat at the cafe. They can’t believe their eyes when they see some of Jacques Marcel’s models wearing copies of their burlap creations! Ricky and Fred say that the girls don’t need a new dress now, because they have the originals of what is now a fashion statement. But Lucy and Ethel admit that they burned the burlap dresses as soon as they could.
I didn’t remember that old episode at all, but I guess lots of other folks have, for there are cutesy, collectible little dolls representing Lucy and Ethel in their Paris gowns available right now for purchase!
And even a Lucy full Barbie-sized doll in full costume.
The one other thing I remembered about gunny sacks was that they are what has been “stereotypically” used for the iconic “sack race” that has been a staple of group recreation events for over a century. I don’t know if folks still try to find them to use for such races, but they were still typical in the 1970s, as you can see from this 1972 episode of the Brady Bunch
Since I had connected the concept of “flour sack dresses” with gunny sacks over the years, I couldn’t imagine that anyone—even “hillbillies” like Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae—REALLY wanted to wear such fashions, as they sounded scratchy and miserable to me.
I recently found out that I was totally misled in my assumptions. Back before most people bought their bread in sliced loaves packaged in cellophane at the grocery, the average housewife went through a whole lot of flour every month, and they would buy it in bulk. Prior to the mid-1800s, flour (and other commodities such as chicken feed) was typically sold in bulk in barrels. But starting in the mid-1800s, as cotton prices fell making mass production of cotton goods highly profitable, the industry began shifting to distributing these goods in sturdy cotton sacks.
Yes, many farm goods were distributed in “gunny sacks,” but those would have been the bulkier items like potatoes. The finer weave of the cotton bags was more suitable for flour and animal feed.
And thus by the late 1800s, many families—particularly rural, farm families—would easily accumulate numerous large, empty flour and feed sacks throughout the year. It didn’t take long for thrifty, creative farm wives to realize that these sacks could be “recycled” or “repurposed” to craft all sorts of items. By the turn of the century it was typical for such women to regularly turn their family’s used cotton flour and feed sacks into diapers for their babies, underwear for older children and adults, dishtowels for their kitchens, quilts for their beds. Each 100 pound bag would yield over a square yard of usable fabric.
By the 1920s, the flour and feed container industry was beginning to catch on to the fact that their cotton packaging was having a second life as clothes and household accessories. To take advantage of this trend, and turn it to their own good, some sack manufacturers began making their sacks from colorful dyed yarn, weaving it into cheerful checked and striped patterns of various colors. Sure enough, many buyers began “preferring” the brands packed in this new sewing material, and it proved profitable.
The sack companies went on to build on this advantage by eventually making their percale cotton sacks available in a wide variety of pretty printed patterns.
They even were careful to print their own logo on the sacks in water-soluble ink that would wash out quite easily (some later used a paper band around the sack to display the logo), while the printed patterns remained bright and clear.
The housewife would remove the stitching holding the sides of the sack together, wash out the company logo, and starch and iron the material to make it smooth for sewing.
Once the fabric was prepared, there was very little difference between a length of feedsack dress percale and a length of dress percale purchased in a store as a new yard good. The Percy Kent Bag Company hired top textile designers from Europe and New York City to create stylish prints with colorfast dyes.
… In 1927, three yards of dress print cotton percale (the typical amount of fabric needed for an average size adult dress) could cost sixty cents when purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Three yards of gingham dress goods could cost forty cents. In comparison, three yards of dress quality gingham used in Gingham Girl Flour sacks from the George P. Plant Milling Company could be salvaged after the use of two or three one hundred pound bags of flour. [From Feed Sack to Clothes Rack: The Use of Commodity Textile Bags in American Households from 1890-1960 (FFS) ]
The same would be true of sacks of chicken feed. I assume it would take even a large farm family well over a month to eat up 300 pounds of flour. But those who were chicken farmers would accumulate feed bags a lot more quickly!
A farmer’s wife described their family’s commodity bag usage in the book, Feedsack Fashion: “We had two big chicken houses and used fourteen sacks of feed every week. My husband got most of the sacks. He always tried to get two or three of the same pattern so we would have enough to make something. He did a pretty good job of picking them out.” [FFS]
That wife may have never quite understood the effort it took to meet her sewing needs!
…Feed sacks may have looked like dress fabric, but they were stacked in store piles with little fanfare and employees were surprised by requests to move several hundred pound bags of chicken feed to get to the perfect dress print pattern. One man remembered trips to the feed store as a teenager when it was important to run this errand with several friends because, “his mother’s preferred patterns would always be on the bottom, so he and his “buddies” would have to hoist sacks until they secured the patterns his mother wanted.” [FFS]
As you might guess, all of this was good for the makers of feed sacks (at least the ones who made the prettiest patterns), but not quite so popular among the feed store owners and workers.
…Feed companies began to notice that while a husband may have little preference in the brand of egg mash fed to his chickens, if his wife needed a specific pattern to match a feed bag that she already owned, her husband began to demonstrate a preference. Suddenly, feed companies were being encouraged to use the latest dress print bags and feed supply stores were turned into fabric stores, to the disdain of one feed salesman interviewed in 1948 who said, “Years ago, they used to ask for all sorts of feeds, special brands you know. Now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain’t natural.” [FFS]
Early on when I was reading up on flour/feed sack clothing, I was still under a misconception. Most of what I read implied that it was a phenomenon that was particularly centered around the needs of poor families during the Great Depression, from 1930 through the beginning of WW2. This would make a lot of sense, as Depression era housewives would be the most likely to really care about having to spend 60 cents for the cloth to make a dress! But I soon discovered this was only one aspect of the appeal of the sacks.
As I later learned, the practice spread from poorer families up into the Middle Class during the War years. Not so much just because of the savings for the family budget…but for the savings for the War Effort!
When the country went to war in the 1940s, domestic fabric production was put on hold while textile companies created goods for the use of the military. Textile rationing during World War II did not originally apply to feed sacks, which were classified as “industrial” textile products. During the height of war production restrictions, hundreds of colorful dress prints were available at the rural feed store, providing a wider variety of patterns than any store carrying traditional yard goods at that time.
…Cotton bag sewing was both a frugal move and a patriotic one. A newspaper column from May 1944 explained, “ Best of all is the patriotic spirit you show when you salvage fabrics. The housewife who converts cotton bags into the many useful items they are capable of becoming under the magic of willing hands and minds not only serves herself, but conserves essential fabrics for her country.” The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association proclaimed, “A yard saved, was a yard gained for victory!”
……In 1943, the United States War Production Board standardized bag sizes into six types ranging from 2 to 100 pounds in an effort to reduce waste. The production board approved pattern books for release to the home front. One mother made her young daughter’s entire wardrobe from feed sacks during the war, “the war effort took all of the fabric on the market.” She told an interviewer, “you could buy very little printed fabric.” [FFS]
Some researchers estimate over three and a half million women and children were wearing flour/feed sack fashions during World War 2.
Here’s a look at just a tiny few of the many sack prints that were available, and the variety of garments that were made from them by industrious amateur seamstresses.
Some were good for baby clothes and accessories.
Some were good for little boys’ shirts.
Some were cute for little girl’s clothes.
And a huge number were appropriate for dresses for older girls and women.
Some bag companies even produced specialty bags that had make-your-own-stuffed-dolls printed on the material.
Others occasionally provided bag material with outlines printed on them suitable for embroidering.
And there were variety prints useful for such things as dishtowels and place mats.
The beginning of the end of flour sack fashions came soon after the end of World War 2.
…The availability of yard goods began to improve for rural shoppers during the spring of 1945. After the war, the child accompanied her mother to a department store that was fully stocked to pre-war levels and pointed to bolts of traditional yard goods in the window,” Oh mom, look at those pretty feed sacks!”
The industry hobbled along up until the early 1960s.
…By the early 1950s, popularity of the dress print bag began to fade. Traditional yard goods were becoming more accessible all over the country and the rural lifestyle that enabled families to use dozens of one hundred pound chicken feed sacks in a year began to disappear. The cotton industry began to lose some of their most lucrative customers as bag companies began to make the switch to the multiwall paper sack. This new method was less expensive for them to produce, and more effective in protecting the contents inside. To slow this changeover, the National Cotton Council began to sponsor exciting contests in every state in the country to encourage women to become the “National Cotton Bag Sewing Queen.”
…Contests took place at state fairs and were advertised along with pattern booklet giveaways in rural magazines like Farm Journal. Regionally, the prizes included expensive sewing machines and even automobiles, with the chance to move on to the national competition and win trips to Hollywood complete with movie studio tours and shopping sprees. [FFS]
So around the Internet now you can see some samples of vintage flour sack dresses that certainly don’t look like Depression era styles, such as this contest winner from 1956.
But eventually the inevitable end came and all those flowery print sacks disappeared from the feed stores.
The heyday of the flour sack clothing is long gone now. But once upon a time, in a 1946 issue of Time magazine, a manager from Pillsbury Flour had this to say in an interview…
“They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls’ underpants.”
Flour Sack Underwear
When I was a maiden fair
Mama made our underwear.
With several tots and Pa’s poor pay,
How could she buy us lingerie?
Monograms and fancy stitches
Were not on our flour sack britches.
Just panty waists that stood the test,
Gold Medal’s seal upon the chest.
Little pants were best of all,
With a scene I still recall.
Harvesters were gleaning wheat
Right across the little seat.
Tougher than a grizzly bear
Was our flour sack underwear.
Plain or fancy, three feet wide,
Stronger than a hippo’s hide.
Through the years, each Jill and Jack
Wore this sturdy garb of sack.
Waste not, want not, we soon learned.
Penny saved, penny earned.
Bedspreads, curtains, tea towels too,
The tablecloths were all reused.
But the best, beyond compare,
Was Our Flour Sack Underwear!