The Fabric of Time: Feed Sacks

Jul 18, 2019

Feed sacks were in many homes across rural America in the middle of the 20th Century. The sacks held flour, salt and sugar, sometimes chicken feed. But once empty, rural Americans recycled the sacks, making them into dresses, tablecloths, curtains, quilts and other household items.

Several years ago, the Museum of Texas Tech University acquired the Pat L. Nickols Printed Cotton Sack Research Collection, which numbered about 5,600 pieces. An exhibition featuring about half of the museum’s 6,000 feed sack holdings are now on display.

“They’re really beautiful and you’re going to see something that will surprise you. If you like history at all, you’re going to see information about World War One and World War Two here. If you love women’s stories, they are just abounding on the walls, because we have pictures of the women who actually made the work and stories of their lives. I think that children will enjoy this exhibit as well. We’ve tried to think about the lower levels so they can see cool things. There’s a pair of children’s mittens in there made of feed sacks, and there are dolls and toys. So it really appeals to all ages, and is hopefully something that is uplifting and encouraging.”

That’s Marian Ann J. Montgomery, the museum’s curator of clothing and textiles, who put the exhibit together. She also written a book, published by Texas Tech University Press, to coincide with the show. It can be purchased through the museum’s shop, the university press and on Amazon.

Montgomery says attaching the word ‘research’ to Nickols collection name is important.

“When you get an offer of a collection that is this large, you really have to do something important with it. And we call it the Nickols Printed Cotton Sack Research Collection because with almost 6,000 pieces, that’s a lot. That’s a real basis for research, and we’ve in fact gotten researchers from Australia touching base with us today looking for information.”

The collection includes white sacks, printed partial and whole cotton sacks, swatches of printed sacks, instructional booklets, garments, quilts, quilt tops, and decorated white sacks. In the 1940s, designers in New York partnered with sack makers.

“And in fact, they were sometimes letting women have choices about what they wanted, just like we do marketing today. They take a group of sample fabrics to a group of women to judge them and decide which ones they liked best before they then marketed them and produced them in quantity. So they were going to New York right away because they wanted you to feel glamourous. So they’re going to give you the most glamourous fabrics they can on their bags.”

Montgomery says a couple of sacks will stand out to visitors. One is an embroidered sack sent from Belgium to the US as a thank you to America for its help during World War I. The other has a propaganda design with World War II depictions.  

“Of course they put what we call propaganda fabric together and it has a wonderful documentation of all of the nations that were involved in the Allied effort. We see the Russian bear protecting Stalingrad, you see the Norwegians, the French, the Poles, all in very positive ways on this feed sack fabric as well as General MacArthur’s battles, Pearl Harbor’s on there. So it’s a real interesting documentation of history for the Allies. You also see the heads of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito in a frying pan with the phrase, ‘bad eggs, keep ‘em frying.’”

She says the use of cotton feed sacks began during the Civil War when trains began to crisscross the country. The sacks replaced unwieldy wood barrels.

Women’s clothing and household items were the predominant use for the feed sacks.

“Because there was the tradition of men in jeans, although some of the sacks had the blue denim look to them- they really were appealing more to the women and to her making clothing for her children because men’s clothing was relatively inexpensive and it lasted for such a long time. Just as men’s suits today last forever.”

The exhibition runs through Dec. 15.