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!

Episode 71 – Genealogy Organization and Work Flow that WORKS!

When you’re working on our genealogy, you’ve got data and records coming from all directions: websites, interviews, archives, downloadable documents, and more. Some of it you’re actively working on, some of it you need to save for later, and the rest has already been analyzed and is ready for archiving. This variety of data requires a variety of storage locations.
 
Genealogy Workflow Organization

Watch episode 71

 
In this week’s special episode of Elevenses with Lisa (episode 71) I’m going to share with you my genealogy data workflow. We’ll talk about how it all fits together to ensure an uncluttered desk and the ability to instantly put my hands on what I need when I need it. If that sounds like something that you need help with, please join me this week.

 Watch Live: Thursday, September 16, 2021 at 11:00 am CT 
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Three ways to watch:
1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player above.
2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 
3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat. 

Episode 71 Show Notes 

Barbara left a comment saying she found our recent videos that we called How Alice the Genealogist Avoids the Rabbit Hole helpful (episode 68 and episode 69), but she did had a question about Evernote. She asks, “Once you have processed (the genealogy record) and extracted the information you need, do you remove them from Evernote and place them in your digital genealogy filing system? I get a bit confused in thinking about what the other purposes of Evernote might be. Wouldn’t I just save my documents, newspaper clippings, etc. to my digital files on the hard drive and also to my Google Drive folders? Is there any need to also have them in Evernote?”

This is a great question, and I think the best way to answer it is to talk about my entire genealogy workflow in which programs like Evernote play a part.

It really helps to have a consistent way to capture and find what you’re actively working on. My workflow works great for me, but its just one way. Follow along with me and see if this might be a flow that will work for you.

The Genealogy Data Flow

Let’s start off with an overview of my workflow. And there are really 5 major workstations, if you will, that your data flows through. Some of these we’ve discussed previously here and also in several Premium Member videos:

  1. Active Genealogy Work
    This is the stuff we are working on currently. I several different tools to capture and work on these items: Evernote, genealogy website subscriptions, “pending” folders on my computer, pending tabs in my 3 ring notebooks and physical pending box on my desk. We discussed this in Elevenses with Lisa episode 7.
  2. Conclusions added to Master Genealogy Database (Software on your computer)
  3. Archival Digital Storage (your computer.) See episode 8 (Digital Archiving) You can certainly keep archival items in Evernote as well.
  4. Archival Paper Storage (your binders.) See episode 6 (Paper Archiving)
  5. Cloud backup. I use Backblaze at https://www.backblaze.com/lisa (affiliate link – thank you for your support of our free content)

Incoming Genealogy Sources

Not everything I find while researching is ready to be archived the moment I find it. Some items are actively being found and worked with such as:

  • Items I’m exploring for the potential application to my current research project
  • Items pending analysis
  • Unproven items
  • Items playing a role in a bigger research question that I want all together for now.
  • Bright Shiny Objects (BSOs) – stuff I found along the way that doesn’t relate to my current research goals

Not everything is captured on my computer. Many items (photos, audio and video records, typed notes) are captured on my phone and my iPad. So, I need an easy way to funnel everything back to one active workspace. A cloud-based notetaking service allows me to do this because it’s available as software on my computer and an app on my mobile devices. All synchronize through my account on the cloud. I use Evernote  (affiliate link – thank you for your support of our free content) so I’ll refer to that, but there are others out there like OneNote, and Google Keep. (Learn more about how to user Evernote in episode 70.)

Evernote allows me to:

  1. Capture and hold items
  2. search and retrieve more effectively than on my computer thanks to OCR (subscription)
  3. work my genealogy research plan
  4. easily collaborate with another researcher by sharing a single link
  5. Store and share media such as audio and video recordings

OK, so does everything go straight into Evernote? The answer is no. So let’s take a look at what happens to a digital item when I get it. I’m going to call it data, but it could be a downloaded genealogy record, a web clipping from a website, a photo of a gravesite I took with my phone, or anything else that includes information I want to use.

Working Your Genealogy Research Plan

When we work our genealogy research plan, we will inevitably locate documents. Typically, these are digital, but sometimes we find a physical document and make a digital copy of it.

Before a digital item is deemed relevant and ready to archive, we have a lot of work to do. We need to evaluate and analyze the document to determine its value and its possible application to our family history. If deemed reliable and applicable, we then need to extract the data and enter it into our family tree software. We may also decide to add some or all of the information to other places such as our online tree if we have one.

Many times, all of this work can’t happen in one sitting. We may need to be able to review and work with the item several times before we’re finished with it. I call this “processing” the document.

Even after its processed, we may still need the item nearby for reference as we work our research plan in the hopes of reaching our goal. At this stage, I consider this item to be “Active.” The opposite of that would be items I consider to be “Archived.” An archived item has been fully utilized and is no longer playing an active role in my research plan. That’s not to say I may not need to reference it again in the future, which is why it must be archived where I can retrieve it. The point is that the item is not relevant to my current active research. For example, perhaps it pertains to my mother’s side of the family and right now I’m working on my father’s side of the family.

My active digital items are typically added to Evernote, which I consider to be my Active workspace. It is not my archival space. However, this is not to say that you can’t store everything in Evernote forever if that’s what you want to do. You certainly could. I’ve given this a lot of thought and there are a few reasons why I don’t store everything in Evernote.

The main reason I don’t store everything in Evernote is that I’m a firm believer in retaining control of my data. If we store everything on a website or in a cloud service (which Evernote is), they (or their hosting provider) could pull the plug tomorrow and it would all be gone. I certainly don’t think that would happen overnight, although there are real cases of that happening. But I don’t want to take the risk, and I don’t want to have to scramble in a panic to move a mountain of data because I’ve been given a 30 day notice that a service is ending or has been sold to another company. (And let’s not even think about the possibility that the email notification of that happening went to my Spam folder!)

In order to retain control of my family history data, my long-term data storage needs to be within my control: my computer, external hard drives (both backed up with Backblaze) and paper print outs. That being said, when it comes to my active research project, I’m willing to trade the risk for the speed and convenience of using an online tool or service such as Evernote. My active research is a small fraction of my total research, most of which has been archived on my computer.

So, when I first find an item, I have a decision to make: where am I going to put it? Will I save it to my computer or to Evernote? It depends on what it is.

Items I save to Evernote:

  • Items needing OCR to be most useful. Examples: Newspaper articles, web clippings
  • Items created with my phone or tablet. Examples: Photos of gravesites and documents, interview audio recordings, videos of research trips
  • Items needing analysis before confirmed as pertaining to my family. Examples: Record downloaded from a genealogy website. I want these in Evernote because everything is together in one place. Tags and the search feature allow me to instantly retrieve any combination of records I need at any given time for cross reference. And if I need to share any or all of the items with another researcher it’s easy to do with just one share link. A cloud notetaking service make working your research plan much easier. (Premium Members watch my video class Collaborative Genealogy with Evernote.
  • Example: Items pertains to my family but not part of my current research project.
  • Downloaded genealogy records I don’t have time to process right now.

All items are tagged with relevant information to make them quick and easy to find in addition to keyword searching.

Items I save to my computer hard drive:

  • Items to I want to keep that have been processed.
  • Digital scans of visual items. Examples: Family Photos, old postcards
  • Large files created on my computer (audio, video).

I have a solid system for organizing my folders and file on my computer so it’s quick and easy to find them. If you’re a Premium Member you can watch my step-by-step classes on how to set that up for yourself on my website GenealogyGems.com.

The bottom line is that whenever I need to find something for my active research project I’m going to search my notetaking service first, and then my computer hard drive.

Genealogy data workflow

Archiving Processed Items

Once I reach my research goal and I’m done actively using those sources, I’m ready to archive them. I could just leave everything in Evernote, but I want to make sure that all genealogical documents that I referenced as a source in my master database, are archived on my computer for long-term storage that I control, and that is being automatically backed up.

An important thing to understand about Evernote is that you can’t just download everything with one click in its original file format. However, you can save individual digitized items in your note, such as genealogical records, to your hard drive. Since there is no lifetime storage limit, I leave the note intact in Evernote, and I save the image to my computer hard drive. Save the image by right-clicking on it (in Windows, & I think it is Command click on a Mac) select Save As and save it to the appropriate archival folder.  I do this at the end of the research project. Now you may feel like your “research project” never ends! But I’m referring to a genealogy research plan.

how to save evernote image to hard drive

How to save a document image to your hard drive from Evernote.

You can learn how to create one in Evernote by watching my Premium video class Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan. (Premium membership required.) Of course, after I’ve answered my research question I quickly develop the next one and build a plan around it. So, you’re right, it never actually ends – thank goodness!

How Do I Find It Later?

My software database is the brain of my genealogy operations. I may have family tree information on various genealogy websites, on my computer, in Evernote and maybe even on my own family history website. But my database is the final word on what I have found and believe to be accurate. As I draw conclusions and add data to my family tree in my database, I cite my source. Therefore, everything I need to know about my tree is in one location I control on my own computer. If someone asks me a question about someone in my family tree, I can quickly look up the information and also see where I got it (the source).

genealogy database software

“Your genealogy database software is the brain of the organization.” Lisa Louise Cooke

When I want to refer back to one of those sources I would look in one of three places:

  1. My computer archival digital files (especially if it’s not part of my active research plan). This is easy to do because I know my folder system well, and it guides me. I’ve never lost anything yet!
  2. Evernote (particularly if the source is part of my current research plan.)
  3. The surname binder (if my citation tells me or I suspect it would be an archived piece of paper.)

Because I stick to my system, I usually instinctively know where to look. And because of they way each is set up, I can find things FAST!

Final Thoughts

Of course there are always exceptions to any rule, and there may be an item or situation that doesn’t fall perfectly neatly into a category or activity. Use your own best judgement on how to handle those. OCR search capability and great systems for digital and paper items will make it possible to find what you need when you need it. And most importantly, you’ll retain control over your family history legacy.

Be sure to share your Evernote credentials in a secure place and share them with a trusted relative so that the account can be passed on in the future. Learn more about protecting your legacy by watching my video class Saving Your Research from Destruction. (Premium membership required.)

Resources

Premium Members: download this exclusive ad-free show notes cheat sheet PDF
Not a member yet? Learn more and join the Genealogy Gems and Elevenses with Lisa family here.

Genealogy Gems Premium Videos including:

  • Organize Your Research with Evernote
  • Making Evernote Effortless
  • Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan
  • Evernote: 10 Projects You Can Do
  • Collaborative Genealogy with Evernote
Evernote for genealogy genealogical sources

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