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.
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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 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).
Sixteen years ago, nearly 3,000 people died in events so horrific that the date itself has been seared into world memory: “9-11.” Today, we remember those who suffered on September 11, 2001. And we explain why many can recall that day with startling clarity: it’s a “flashbulb memory,” the kind that produces lasting, vivid impressions in our minds.
Me with my new little baby Jeremy, a month after the September 2001 attacks.
Sixteen years ago today, I was sitting at my desk in a research office at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio when a co-worker informed me that airplane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Within minutes, someone had set up a television in our common area. So several of us were watching the news when another plane hit the second tower–and we realized this wasn’t a horrible mistake. It was an attack.
I responded instinctively, calling my husband at work and then my babysitter to check on my two-month old infant, Jeremy. As the general panic and confusion rose, I couldn’t think of anything but my baby. Before long, I left the office, swooped up my son from the babysitter’s house and fled the city. I drove toward my home in the suburbs, glancing up at the Cleveland skyline constantly, not knowing whether our city would also come under attack.
Gradually I learned, along with the rest of the world, about the full scope of the attack, the losses of thousands of lives and the heroism of those who helped others in harm’s way. I felt a little foolish for having seized little Jeremy and run when there was no actual danger to us. But that protective urge I felt was so powerful that I still remember it clearly, 16 years later, as my personal response to a day the world changed forever.
Why We Recall 9-11 So Vividly
Several years later, while researching the nature of our memories for the first edition of Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy, I learned about “flashbulb memories:”
“Flashbulb Memories are memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event. Hearing the news that President John Kennedy had been shot is the prototype case. Almost everyone can remember, with an almost perceptual clarity, where he was when he heard, what he was doing at the time, who told him, what was the immediate aftermath, how he felt about it, and also one or more totally idiosyncratic and often trivial concomitants.” -Roger Brown and James Kulk in Cognition (Vol 5, Issue 1, 1977, pages 73-99; quoted from this abstract online)
In other words, surprising and life-altering events can leave vivid and lasting impressions in our minds, like the bright flash of an old-fashioned camera flashbulb that captures a moment forever. Kennedy’s assassination and 9-11 are just two examples. What others come to mind for your own lifetime? For example, I recall with startling clarity the moment a teacher burst into my middle school classroom in 1986 to tell us that that Challenger shuttle had exploded in mid-air with school teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard. I recall other moments of personal significance with that kind of clarity, too. It doesn’t have to be a world-altering event to produce a flashbulb memory–just one that affects your world.
Write Your Memories Before They Fade
Recently, I read that our flashbulb memories don’t remain as bright or crisp as the moment they were captured. Psychology Today reported a 10-year study of people’s memories of 9-11.
“All survey participants still had memories of how they found out about the event, who they were with, what they were doing, how they felt, the first person they talked to and what they were doing before finding out about the attack. That means that all of the survey participants had memories that would quality as a flashbulb memory. They were generally highly confident in the memory as well.
Despite their memory confidence, when the details of their memories were compared to the initial survey taken within 10 days of 9/11, there were significant inconsistencies. A year after the event, only about 2/3 of what people remembered was accurate.” – Art Markman, PhD (click here for full article)
Now, remembering even two-thirds of an event after a year has passed is quite good. And that accuracy remained strong for 10 years. The same report states, “By 10 years after 9/11, people were still about 60% accurate. Thus, although flashbulb memories are not like videos of the event, they are probably more accurate than memories for most events that took place 10 years before.”
What are your flashbulb memories? Write them down. Try to be as accurate as possible: return in your mind not to the last time you told that memory, but to the actual experience of it. Walk yourself through it slowly. Why? The Psychology Today article includes this warning: “If someone added an incorrect detail into their memory for the event, that misinformation was likely to be repeated in later accounts rather than corrected. This suggests that one reason why flashbulb memories remain so vivid for people is that they are recalled over time. Extra information that emerges when someone recalls a memory can get incorporated into that memory later.”
This is also an excellent reason to write down your memories as soon as possible after all important events in your life. Your recollections of even your most precious and positive events will fade. So if you want to keep hold of more than 60% of that once-in-a-lifetime trip you just took, write it down as soon as possible. Even if time has already passed, go ahead and write them down. Then use memory-jogging exercises to flesh them out, and do a little research to confirm hazy details. In my book, Story of My Life, I include these strategies along with hundreds of writing prompts to get your memories flowing. Note: Recalling particularly traumatic events may most safely and productively be done with the guidance of a professional counselor.
If you haven’t already done so, why not take some time today to write your own memories of a “flashbulb event” or another important memory in your life? You may learn something from doing so, as I did about the strength of my own maternal instincts on 9-11. Or you may simply find the walk down memory lane to be meaningful, full as it is with loved ones, lessons and life experiences.
Ever thought of visiting your childhood home? Here’s a story about people who are actually buying theirs back. For the rest of us, here’s how to use Google and Google Earth to revisit your childhood home and relive some memories–without spending a dime.
Your childhood home–or perhaps another beloved family home–is your own personal address on Memory Lane. Who wouldn’t love to stroll up to its doors and recapture some memories?
The image above is of my husband’s great grandfather’s home in Winthrop, Minnesota. It’s a home that I have many photos of, have researched, and have come to feel personally connected to although I’ve never seen it in person. It’s one of many ancestral homes that I yearn to visit one day. So as you can imagine, I really enjoyed this report from The Wall Street Journal about a few lucky folks who are living the dream of not only visiting, but owning and restoring, their childhood home.
Even if you’re not interested in buying back an old family home, many of us are curious about the houses we used to love. Are those houses still there? What do they look like now? What else can we learn about them?
Let’s explore three ideas to help you stroll down memory lane. Then, I’ll share a discovery from a Genealogy Gems Premium podcast listener who recently dropped me a line.
1. Find the address for your childhood home
If you don’t recall the street address of your favorite family home, ask a relative or look it up. For U.S. addresses since 1940, you might start with the U.S. Public Records Index, searchable in part or full at Ancestry.com (volumes 1 and 2 for 1950-1993), FamilySearch.org or MyHeritage.com (click here to learn more about that database). Look also in records such as:
For U.S. addresses from 1880-1940, look to U.S. census records, which include street names and house numbers. In the example below from the 1930 census, you can see “Cedar Street” written vertically by the red arrow, and the house number written for each household entry, as shown in blue.
From the 1930 US census, Ancestry.com.
If you can’t find an address on an old record, but you think you could navigate yourself there on a map, it’s time to go to Google Earth and fly yourself there!
2. Use Google Earth to view your childhood home now
Learn all these Google skills with step-by-step tutorials and video demonstrations in The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox book and Google Earth video tutorial. Click here for a special price on the bundle!
Google Earth is your on-ramp to your own personal Memory Lane. Go to the site, enter an address, and watch yourself “fly” to that address. If you don’t know an exact address but you know where to look, enter a street name or even a city. Then zoom in to the neighborhood and street section of interest. Activate Street View, if it’s available. Not sure how to do that? Watch my free Google Earth for Genealogy Video Class to get started.
Once you’ve found the location, take a close look. Is the house still there? What does it look like now? How has the landscape changed? The neighborhood?
You can use Google Earth to revisit your own childhood home or another family landmark, such as an ancestor’s homestead or burial place. (Click here to read about one genealogist’s virtual trip to an ancestor’s business using Google Earth’s Street View, and click here to see how another genealogist used historical map overlays in Google Earth to identify an old home’s location.)
3. Google the address of your childhood home
Googling the address of your family home may produce unexpected and interesting results like these:
a) Sale listings. If your house has been on the market in recent years, you may be able to find a listing with great details, and even pictures of the inside today. Top Google search results from specific addresses often bring up real estate websites with varying degrees of information, such as square footage, current estimated value, year built, most recent sale date and price, and more. Weed through these entries to see whether Zillow or another similar site shows a current or past listing for sale or rent. These may contain more details and may even have interior and exterior pictures of the house as it is now.
Watch closely—Google may bring up houses nearby, not the one you’re looking for. But even a neighborhood listing for a house built on a similar floor plan may jog your memories of the home and may give you a sense of what the area is like now.
b) Historical information. A Google search result may bring up historical news coverage or obituaries from digitized newspaper websites like Newspapers.com (a subscription may be required to view these in full). Or you may find something really fascinating, like a discovery made by Genealogy Gems Premium member Heather. After listening to me talk about this subject in Premium Podcast episode 141 (click here to subscribe), Heather wrote me this email:
“I love listening to the podcasts while driving to and from work, often sharing my own thoughts with you. This happened yesterday while listening to the latest Premium Podcast episode on family homes. I decided that I had to write and share what I managed to find! Since I have deep family roots in Connecticut back to 1650s, I managed to find a few family homes, but I started searching with the more recent generations and addresses that I knew. The two homes where my great-grandparents (Inez Hart and John Milton Burrall) and my great-grand aunts (Mary and Lucy Burrall) lived were written up in an application for the National Register of Historic Places!
The National Park Service is working on digitizing these applications. I found the application with a narrative description of the home and pictures of the interior and exterior. I have found other applications that have also included some genealogy of the family who lived in the home. Here is the website for the National Park Service and the database search page.”
Thanks for sending these in, Heather! And for sending along copies of the applications she found. The multi-page applications (more than 10 pages each!) include historical background on the buildings and former owners, as well as photos and site maps. Above is a photo–and below is an excerpt–from these applications.
When you’re ready for a full-fledged Google education, take a look at my top-selling book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, and my companion video tutorial series, Google Earth for Genealogy. You can save by bundling them together for the ultimate Google-for-genealogy education!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase (at no additional cost to you) after clicking on these links. Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
A “house history” can tell you more about the house you live in–or your ancestor’s home. Here’s how.
Are you curious about the history of the house you live in, or would you like to trace the history of a family property? The online article “How to Research Your Home’s Past” by Charity Vogel has some great ideas. It’s not written for family historians, but I like some of the ideas it suggests:
1. Pull a full history of home ownership off your deed. (Historical deeds may not have these. But each deed does represent a link in the chain of property ownership: you should be able to move forward and backward in time in deed records until you’ve listed all owners.)
2. Use census records to learn more about other folks who lived in your home. Remember you’ll be able to see how many people lived there, and, for some census years, whether they owned or rented.
3. Watch for unusual patterns of ownership. For example, a deed showed sisters co-owning a home in the 1930s. Additional research showed that the sisters were nurses and ran the house as a community hospital. How cool is that to know about a house?
4. If it was a grand or unusual home, see whether the newspapers covered its construction. The author of the article found an 1898 article that detailed the entire five-month building process of her house!
Last year I shared an applicable research strategy in my blog post A Shocking Family Secret, and 3 Powerful Newspaper Research Tips about researching our ancestors and where they lived. By searching on their home address, and not including their name, you can uncover “a kind of house history set of search results, revealing who lived there before, descriptions of the home and its contents and who moved in after your ancestors left. In my case, I located an article about the Cooke home (by the address) being up for sale several years before they owned it. That article included a fairly detailed description of the property. The final article found in the British newspapers was also found only by address (as the Cooke name wasn’t mentioned) and it detailed the contents of their household up for sale. The auction was held in preparation for their move to Canada.” (Click here to learn more about finding your family history in newspapers.)
While looking for more on this topic, I came across a great newspaper article about three researchers who specialize in house histories. They said that in addition to the personal satisfaction of knowing about a family home, “A bit of history and story makes it much easier to sell: it attracts a certain buyer.”
Here are a few more helpful resources, if you’d like to research your house history:
More House History Gems: Researching a Family Residence
Ancestral Landmark Discovery with Google Earth
How to Find a Family Address: 4 Steps to Using Google Earth for Genealogy
Was This My Ancestor’s Neighborhood?