If you’re getting into quilts, you’ve probably seen the words “1930s feed sack” used in descriptions. If you’ve ever wondered: What are feed sacks? Were they strictly confined to the 1930s? this post is for you! 🤗 Continue on for a mini history lesson!
Feed sacks were cotton bags used to hold animal feed, flour, sugar, rice, tobacco, beans, cornmeal, bath salts, dog food, sausages, soap and so much more. These bags came "free" with the purchase of home and farm essentials -- at a time when fabrics were a costly and important material. The sacks were often bleached and repurposed -- cut up and sewn into dresses, children's clothing, aprons, dolls, pin cushions -- you name it, and it was probably made with a feed sack by someone.
Every little scrap of fabric from feed sacks was used. Nothing was wasted. This is often why you will see quilts from the 1930s-1940s with tiny, scrappy pieces. There was often competition over who could use the smallest pieces -- or largest amount small pieces -- in their quilts. This is where we get quilts like Postage Stamp quilts with 1-inch squares totaling thousands of tiny pieces.
Feed sacks first appeared in the 1840s, when America's abhorrent reliance on slave labor made cotton bags an affordable alternative to wooden barrels. Even after the Civil War, when slavery was supposedly abolished, exploitative sharecropping practices kept the price of cotton low -- and the feed sack industry proliferated.
In the 1880s, logos started appearing on these cotton feed sack bags, and as early as the 1920s, companies were producing bags with water soluble labels and with sewing instructions or sewing patterns on the inside. The Great Depression, 1929-1939, made the repurposing of this material even more of a necessity for the vast majority of Americans. "Waste not, want not" was the norm. Feed sacks are often credited with keeping the American cotton industry afloat during the Great Depression.
Patterned bags marketed to women became enormously popular in the late 1930s. This led to companies vying for customers with the most vibrant and desirable prints on their bags. Farmers would bring their daughters into town to pick up feed so they could pick out the feed bags with the most beautiful prints, or to find a matching print for a dress they needed to complete. Thousands of different patterns of feed sacks were in production through the 1940s into the 1950s.
Feed sacks saw their height of popularity in the 1940s. During this time, feed sacks were so popular that they were available to purchase through department stores like Macy's or from catalogues. A Los Angeles Times article from February 1942 stated that over three million American farm women and children wore garments made from feed sacks. During World War Il, because they were printed on feed and other essential goods bags, feed sacks were categorized as industrial and not restricted as much as other cotton goods going towards the war effort. By 1946, there were over 30 bag manufacturing companies in the U.S., and feed sacks made for 4.5 percent of total U.S. cotton consumption.
Starting in the early 1950s, the demand for printed feed bags drastically declined. Cotton struggled to compete with other synthetic fabrics that were coming on the market. By the end of the 1950s, there was less demand for cotton feed sacks, and production was largely halted in 1964.
Feed sacks and quilts made with feed sacks are highly sought after today and hold a vast amount of American history, with over 18,000 different documented prints in existence. I'm often asked: how can you tell if a fabric is feed sack? The easiest way to identify this is if a feed label is still visible on the fabric. You can also sometimes identify a whole feed bag by its size, shape, and holes in the selvedge where the string once was. However, the best way is to do a lot of research and become familiar with specific prints and weaves that signify feed sack fabric. There are also many great books that document different patterns and when they were produced. Most of this history and much more can be found in Feed Sacks by Linzee Kull McCray -- I highly recommend it!
A note on feed sacks and dating quilts: frequently, a single quilt will include feed sack fabric alongside other materials that span several decades or generations. Many people kept their fabric collections to pass down to their children. Keep in mind that a quilt is only as old as its newest fabric, so while a quilt might have some 1940s feed sack fabrics, if it also has polyester, then it was not made in the 1940s. It's still fascinating to spot these pieces and determine where they came from -- even if feed sack is just one part of a quilt that was made generations later, it remains a part of history.