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 memorabilia.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Knowles Jewish Genealogy Collection Has Over a Million Entries

Ketubah Circa 1860. This is the ketubah (marriage contract) of Hannah and Hayyim from their marriage on Tuesday, April 6, 1886 (א׳ ניסן תרמ״ו) in the town of Brody. Image by Yoel Ben-Avraham on Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/1355967207/in/photolist-.

Ketubah Circa 1860.
This is the ketubah (marriage contract) of Hannah and Hayyim from their marriage on Tuesday, April 6, 1886 (א׳ ניסן תרמ״ו) in the town of Brody. Image by Yoel Ben-Avraham on Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/1355967207/in/photolist-.

Looking for an online resource of Jewish family trees?

“The Knowles Collection, a quickly growing, free online Jewish genealogy database linking generations of Jewish families from all over the world, reached its one-millionth record milestone and is now easily searchable online,” says a recent FamilySearch press release.

“The collection started from scratch just over seven years ago, with historical records gathered from FamilySearch’s collections. Now the vast majority of new contributions are coming from families and private archives worldwide. The free collection can be accessed at FamilySearch.org/family-trees.

According to FamilySearch, “The databases from the Knowles Collection are unlike other collections in that people are linked as families and the collection can be searched by name, giving researchers access to records of entire families. All records are sourced and show the people who donated the records so cousins can contact one another. New records are added continually, and the collection is growing by about 10,000 names per month from over 80 countries. Corrections are made as the need is found, and new links are added continually.”

The database was started by Todd Knowles, a Jewish genealogy expert at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Jewish communities from around the world have added to it: “The Knowles Collection has grown from Jews of the British Isles (now with 208,349 records), to Jews of North America (489,400), Jews of Europe (380,637), Jews of South America and the Caribbean (21,351), Jews of Africa, the Orient, and the Middle East (37,618), and the newest one, Jews of the Southern Pacific (21,518).” Keep up with the Knowles Jewish Collection at its blog.

Midwestern Roots Registration Starts Today!

I have roots in Indiana and have longed to travel to Hoosier state to conduct some much needed genealogy research. So you can imagine how happy I was to be invited to keynote at the upcoming Midwestern Roots 2014: Family History and Genealogy Conference being held August 1 and 2, 2014, Indianapolis, IN, at the Indianapolis Marriott East.

This year’s theme is a timely one: Exploring Frontiers: What Would Your Pioneers Have Tweeted? This conference promises to be a glorious melding of old and new with deep history sessions and the latest technology.

Here’s the scoop on the Midwestern Roots Conference:

Registration Opens March 26 with a $99 registration special price March 26-29, 2014.

Includes the two day conference and lunches.

Additional fee for banquet and some pre-conference activities.

Register online at www.indianahistory.org/midwesternroots or

call (317) 232-1882 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday during the special offer.

The Midwestern Roots 2014 Conference is your chance to get updated on the latest technology changes in family history research, resources and methodology, and I’ll be exploring that in my keynote  Future Technology and Genealogy: 5 Strategies You Need. You’ll also experience:

• More than 30 stimulating lectures from nationally known speakers Warren Bittner, Lisa Louise Cooke, Joan Hostetler, Amy Johnson Crow, Thomas MacEntee, James H. Madison, Anne Gillespie Mitchell, Daniel S. Poffenberger, Curt B. Witcher and more

•  The Great Google Earth Game Show presented by Lisa Louise Cooke (this will be an interactive, FUN, outside the box kind of session topped off with prizes!)

Hoosiers and A New History for the Twenty-First Century presented by James H. Madison

A Guided Tour of Ancestry computer lab taught by Amy Johnson Crow and Anne Gillespie Mitchell from Ancestry.com

• Genealogy Resources Library Workshop

• Writing, document preservation and photo preservation workshops

• Family History Market and Book Fair – open to the public

See you at the Midwestern Roots 2014 Conference!

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