Flour Sack Dresses: Thrifty Fashions from the Great Depression

Flour sack dresses show how resourceful housewives of the past “made do” with whatever was at hand. But they weren’t the only clever ones–see how savvy flour and feed companies responded to their customers’ desires for cuter sacking.

flour sack dress history

The History of Flour Sack Dresses

During the tough economic times of the Great Depression, housewives needed new ways to produce what their families needed, including clothing. So they looked around the house–and even the barn–for extra fabric they could turn into dresses, aprons, or shirts.

flour sack dresses

Female workers pose with sacks of flour in the grounds of a British mill during WWI. 1914. By Nicholls Horace [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (Click to view.)

One answer? Feed and flour sacks. Back then, flour and animal feed came in large fabric bags, like the ones you see here in this World War I-era photo. Seamstresses had been using these muslin or burlap sacks since the 1890s to make common household items.

By the 1920s, these sacks had gotten a little cuter, some with gingham checked or striped patterns. So frugal housewives of the 1930s turned feed and flour sacks into everyday clothing for themselves and their families.

It didn’t take long for manufacturers of flour and feed to start printing their sacks with colors and patterns that women would want to buy. Some put patterns for dolls or stuffed animals on the bags. They even made it so you could wash out the ink so your new dress wouldn’t be a walking ad for Sunbonnet Sue flour! Newspapers and publishers also began printing patterns and ideas for getting the most out of the small yardage of a flour or feed sack.

Old photo of printed fabric flour sacks or ‘feedsacks’. Flickr Creative Commons photo, uploaded by gina pina. Click to view.

A fascinating article at OldPhotoArchive.com shows some great images of flour and feed sack dresses. And the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has an online article about a feed sack dress from 1959, because these didn’t go out of fashion when the Great Depression ended! According to that article, World War II caused a cotton fabric shortage. Feed and flour sack dresses again became popular.

After the war, women continued to make these dresses, encouraged even further by national sewing contests. Women even sold off their extra flour or feed sacks to others who wanted them.

Memories of Flour Sack Dresses

A woman named Denise posted a neat memory at the end of the Smithsonian article. She says:

flour sack dresses

Click to view my Facebook post about my grandma’s 1940s house dresses.

“I was born in 1951. For the first four-five years of my life, all my dresses were sewn by my paternal grandmother from feed sacks. She would layer the fabric two to three layers deep and cut the main dresses from the same pattern. She would then add different details to each dress. Some sleeveless, some with little puffy fifties sleeves, some with self collars, some with contrasting solid collars. We lived in rural north GA, but nonetheless I was teased by my parents’ friends about my feed-sack dresses. Oh how I longed for store-bought dresses. Now, oh how I long to have some of those wonderful little feed sack dresses! They weren’t thought of as precious at all, so no one ever thought to keep them!”

I think a lot of people have fond—or at least vivid—memories of old dresses like these. I do! I posted a photo of my grandma’s old house dresses from the 1930s and 1940s on Instagram. What a response from everyone there and on Facebook! My grandma’s house dresses weren’t made from flour sacks, but they’re from the same era.

Want to see some eye-candy vintage fabrics or date your own family heirloom clothing? Check out these books:

Care for Your Flour Sack Dresses or Other Heirlooms

Take better care of your own family heirloom pieces, whether they are photos, vintage fabrics, documents or other objects. Get Denise Levenick’s popular book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy RecordsThis book will help you sort, identify, and preserve your own treasured family artifacts and memorabiliaSave 10% with our exclusive Genealogy Gems promocode GEMS17 (good through Dec. 31, 2017).

The Touching Stories our Heirlooms Hold

Some of us are using heirloom research for genealogy. A new exhibit traces the history of interesting heirlooms using genealogical research strategies. Be inspired by these examples and tips to research heirlooms and more fully discover their stories.

A new exhibit called Heirloom Genealogy: Tracing your Family Treasures has opened at The Star of the Republic Museum in Texas. You better believe it caught our interest! We know our readers are looking for unique and different ways to continue their genealogy journeys. We wanted to find out more about how family historians are using heirloom research for genealogy. Curator Shawn Carlson was kind enough to answer some questions about it and share the touching stories the heirlooms held.

Shawn Carlson, Curator of Collections and Exhibits, Star of the Republic Museum

Q: What an unusual exhibit idea! How did you think of it?

A: I had been researching artifacts at the museum for several years by tracing the genealogy of the families who donated the artifacts. The best exhibit text usually comes from real stories about artifacts—and doing the genealogy was where I found the stories. When I started thinking about this latest exhibit, I thought maybe there was a way that I could use the genealogical research I already had, and that’s when I came up with  the idea of “heirloom genealogy.”

Q: Who was involved in the research and how long did it take?

A: I did all of the research. Some of it had previously been done, but some was new. I usually spend the summer researching for an exhibit, and then write the text and begin production in the fall for a March opening during the Texas Independence Day celebration at Washington-on-the-Brazos.

Q: Can you share a couple of examples and images of artifacts and the documents that told their stories?

A: One of the artifacts I researched was a red-on-white appliqué quilt. It was made in 1805 in Vermont and donated by the quiltmaker’s 3X great-granddaughter who lived in Houston. It should have been easy to figure out the lineage by the inscription on the quilt—but it wasn’t. There were two Cynthia Tuckers and two Pearl Browns in the family and one quilt owner had been married a couple of times and used a nickname. So, it took a bit of sorting out. The research was all done using census data, but it all came back to the inscription on the quilt for final verification.

Another item in our collection is a small buckskin suit that belonged to a little boy named Edward Clark Boylan. He was born in New Orleans in 1840 and died three years later near Galveston, probably from yellow fever. We knew his birth and death dates from his sister’s descendant who donated the suit, but not much else. I found some cryptic notes in our files taken by a previous curator and was able to trace Edward to Captain James Boylan who was captain of the ship Brutus during the Texas Revolution.

I found a passenger list from 1839 with Captain Boylan, his wife, and daughter traveling from Puerto Rico to New York. Mrs. Boylan would have been pregnant with Edward during that voyage:

The year that Edward died, his father was mentioned frequently in the newspapers as he led a flotilla of ships out of Campeche. He was probably not present when little Edward died.

Q: What was an especially interesting story you came across while researching this exhibition?

A: One of the most interesting items we’ve received in recent years is a slave birth record that was part of a family collection:

The donor’s ancestors were early settlers of Washington County. The slave record was interesting because it listed birth dates from 1832 to 1865. Out of curiosity, I tried tracking some of the slaves to see if I could find living descendants. I started with the 1870 census—looking for African-Americans with the surname of the plantation owner and first names that matched the slaves in the birth record. I was able to follow through on one of the names to find a living descendant. She and her family came to visit the museum and see the birth record of their ancestor. While the family was visiting during last year’s Texas Independence Day celebration, the donor of the slave record also visited the museum and the two families were able to meet.

Q: What advice do you have for family historians with heirlooms?

A: Learn about the artifacts you have and match them to their owners. There is plenty of information online that will help you identify and date artifacts. Knowing the date of an artifact helps you determine who had it in the past.

More on Heirloom Research for Genealogy

Connect your heirlooms with their stories and bring the past to life!

Get Denise Levenick’s popular book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records. This book will help you sort, identify, and preserve your own treasured family artifacts and memorabilia. Save 10% with our exclusive Genealogy Gems promocode GEMS17 (good through Dec. 31, 2017).

How Facebook Users Reunited a Bible with its Family: Facebook for Family History

family-bible-cover-2These genealogy sleuths used Facebook for family history when they responded to a plea to help return a family Bible to its family.

Back on March 21, Donna Whitten posted a video on her church Facebook page. Her post says, “How far would you go to get back something you’ve lost?”

She was talking about a 150 year-old family Bible she’d come across while antiquing one day in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her post says, “We want to find this family and return it to them! Can you help?” (Click here to see that post and video.)

family-bible-marriagesThat video post got 34,000 views, thanks in part to more than 600 people who shared it! Family history fans immediately stepped up to the challenge. They looked for names on Ancestry.com and reached out to tree owners. Within two days, several descendants were aware of the Bible and asking for copies. The bible eventually went to a woman in California named Carrie Robinson, who has been researching her tree for several years. It contained obituaries clipped from newspapers and handwritten vital family events. (Wouldn’t you love to receive that kind of family treasure?) Click here to watch the follow-up video about when Donna took the bible to the new owner.

Hats off to Donna and her team of sleuths who took the time to find Carrie’s family and return their past to them! I find a few take-home messages in this story:

  • Social media is a great way to cast your net wide, not just when you’re sharing family history, but when you’re looking for information. Click here to read more about gathering memories through Facebook.
  • You can watch for orphaned heirlooms in your path and return them to descendants. Click here to read tips on how to do that.
  • The video Donna created got attention on Facebook! Video is powerful. Use it to share your family history. (Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. I appreciate you using these links because that compensation helps make the Genealogy Gems blog possible. Thank you!)  Click here to read about Animoto, a DIY-video making service I love that lets you produce your own professional-quality videos. Below is one quick video I created. Can you say shareable?!

This Family Tree Quilt Stitches 2600 Relatives Together

White family tree quilt center compressedA giant family tree quilt documents 9 generations and just over 2600 family names. Here’s how the quilter completed this beautiful family heirloom.

Not long ago, I came across this article from a local news outlet about the White family celebrating its 104th reunion. That’s quite an accomplishment, but what really caught my eye was the heirloom on display: a family tree quilt so large it couldn’t easily fit in a single photograph.

I tracked down the designer and creator of the family tree quilt. She’s a busy young mom named Jennifer Reiter. “Before we had our 100th reunion, I was reading a book with my girls about pioneer days,” she says. “A little girl was traveling. When they arrived at their destination, they made a quilt with all the memories from their favorite dress material. I got a crazy idea to do something like that for our family’s 100th-anniversary reunion: a quilt with everyone’s names on it.”

White family tree quilt sketch center block compressedIt wasn’t an easy undertaking. Jennifer took the names from a family history book her mother-in-law had. The founding couple from the 1700s had four children. Jennifer designed the quilt such that each quadrant of the quilt would represent one branch of the family. She sketched out her design across 46 pages from a notebook. Then she copied everyone’s names onto quilt block templates that were sent each out to volunteers in the family to help hand-stitch.

White family tree quilt showing family separation compressedAll the descendants’ names are on the quilt, Jennifer reports. “Each family unit appeared on one square. If a child got married and had a family, they got another square of their own. Each generation was a different color thread. My color is orange, so I can easily see who else is from the same generation I am. I tried to keep the colors of the fabric about the same, family-wise, too.”

“It took a year,” Jennifer says. “I didn’t get quite as much help as I white family tree quilt key for color generation compressedthought I would.” The final quilt documents 9 generations with 2601 names in it on a quilt that’s larger than king-sized. There are 256 quilt blocks, each of them 6″ square.

The quilt made its debut appearance at the 100th White family reunion, and a few years since then. It also took an honorable mention in the county fair. But she learned a lesson about letting it out of her sight too often: “There were a few years it was missing after it got left at the reunion. Someone went to the camp and they were looking for it again. The secretary had it. Now I have it my possession permanently.”

What an amazing accomplishment–and what an heirloom for the White family! Thanks for sharing it with us, Jennifer.

More Inspiring Family Quilts from Genealogy Gems

wedding quilt dressA New Heritage Quilt from Old Family Fabrics (with an entire wedding dress sewn into it!)

A Photo Quilt Stitches Together Childhood Memories

A Quilt that Brought My Family Together (story in free Genealogy Gems podcast)

The priceless gift my daughter gave me at Rootstech – Heritage Jewelry

Did you know you can memorialize a loved one’s handwriting in a piece of custom jewelry? Check out this very special piece of heritage jewelry. bracelet

Last week I celebrated my birthday at RootsTech 2016. What a party! A highlight was an impromptu birthday serenade by the audience after my Think Tank lecture at the Genealogy Gems booth.

Something I’ll also never forget was receiving this birthday gift from my daughter Lacey. It’s a bracelet that says “Mother” in handwriting script. Lacey asked me, “do you recognize the handwriting?”

Recognize the handwriting? What did she mean? As I gave it a closer look, I did indeed recognize it. It was my beloved Grandma Burkett’s handwriting. I would know it anywhere.

My Grandma Burkett is so special to me. She loved me with all her heart and I always knew it. She also introduced me to family history, as I explain in the RootsTech video clip below.

Yes, I know that handwriting on my bracelet well, and it is a tender memory to wear it. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve–this is like wearing my heart around my wrist.

Lacey says it was really easy to order this custom heirloom piece, and she loves it because “no one else will ever have the same one!” Here are Lacey’s tips for ordering something like it:

1. “Plan ahead, as most of the vendors who create these types of jewelry take at least 4 weeks. I used Monogrammed Necklaces, an Etsy.com vendor.

2. In the case of the bracelet, the handwriting piece was included in the total length of the bracelet, but the writing lays flat instead of curving with your wrist so it actually shortens the length of the chain. So I would suggest ordering an inch or two longer than you need.

3. Provide them with the actual word(s) you want written. If you have more than one word, they will be squished together to be one continuous piece. (You might be able to get them written on two lines, but again the top and bottom would be squished together.)

4. Read reviews before ordering. Make sure people aren’t saying the piece breaks easily or feels low-quality. Look at examples of the jewelry to get an idea of what kind of sample you want to select. I researched several vendors before picking this one. This one also came ready to go in a pretty box, which was a nice touch. They can also engrave pendants with handwriting, which is great if you want the words with spaces between or longer writings.”

family heirlooms

This isn’t the first piece of jewelry I’ve worn in honor of Grandma Burkett. I’ve blogged in the past about turning one of her earrings into a ponytail holder, which is quite a conversation piece whenever I wear it. Click here to read that post.

Find more heritage jewelry, family history craft and display ideas on the Genealogy Gems Pinterest boards. Have you made or purchased something special yourself? We’d love to hear about it!

Deck the Halls with Family Photos: Family History Wreath

wreath redA few years ago, I created a video series that demonstrates how to make a family history wreath (watch below). I was reminded of that series this year when I received a nice email from Genealogy Gems Premium member Mary Ann. She sent in these photos of wreaths she made after finding my instructions through the Genealogy Gems podcast (episode 32).

wreath silverHer female cousins have a tradition of exchanging gifts at Thanksgiving, she says. She made the red wreath for that exchange two years ago. “I made the silver one for my mom’s birthday,” she adds.  “The photos on the wreaths are of my grandparents and great-grandparents.”

These are beautiful wreaths and I’m so pleased Mary Ann shared them with us! Below is the four-part video series I created with instructions on how to make these. Happy heritage crafting!


Find more beautiful family history displays and crafts on the Genealogy Gems Pinterest boards. We have boards for family history displays, crafts, quilts, heritage scrapbooking, ideas for family history activities with kids and more! Will you take a second and share this post (or one of our Pinterest pins) with someone who would just love it?

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