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.
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:
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:
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Recently we heard from Gordon in Billings, Montana, U.S.A, who passed on news about historical Norwegian maps online now at their National Map Works. He says:
“I have been enjoying your podcasts for a couple of years now, so I though I would pass on a piece of information that some of your listeners might want to hear about.
I don’t know how many of them do research in Norway like I do but I suspect that most of the ones that do, do not make a habit of reading the Norwegian newspapers. Since my wife was born in Norway, we do read her hometown paper on a regular basis. Just yesterday, that paper, Bergens Tidende, had an article reporting that the “Statens Kartverk” (the National Map Works) has recently digitized and posted on-line 8000 historical maps of Norway. (Click here for the article.)
Unfortunately, the website for the maps has not put a link in their English section yet, but there isn’t much to read beyond place names on the maps anyway. You can view the maps here.
Just choose a county, click the green button, and see a wonderful collection of maps for anyone with ancestors from Norway.”
Thanks for the tip, Gordon! I’ll add this tip of my own: Open the website in Chrome and Chrome will automatically offer to translate the website. Simply click the Translate button, like you’ll see below:
New archival collections at your favorite repository may be the long-awaited key to solving your family history mysteries! But how can you keep up with what’s new at archives and libraries? Professional archivist Melissa Barker shares her favorite tips.
Many of us can say that our ancestors were living in a certain area and their records should be located at certain local archives, libraries, or genealogical or historical societies. Maybe we have even done research there in the past, either by visiting the facility, contacting them by phone or email, or using their records online. Records, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts are constantly being discovered and made available in all of our wonderful archives. Many of these records may not make it to microfilm or online, but they are so rich with family information. (Don’t know where to look? Click here to learn how to find archives and libraries near your ancestor’s locale.)
But trying to keep up with all the new records that are being processed in archives, libraries, and genealogical societies can make your head spin! So how are genealogists supposed to stay current?
3 Ways to Keep Up with New Archival Collections
1. Check the archives website. See if they have announced new records collections that are available for research (many archives do). The archives may even have a blog or newsletter that you can subscribe to, which will give you the latest news right at your fingertips. Not only will the archives announce new records that are available but they will even let their patrons know what has been recently donated to the archives and which records are currently being processed.
2. See if the archive has a social media presence. Archives like to post photos of new discoveries and records collections that are ready for the researcher. I know at the Houston County, TN. Archives I like to scan and post images of great documents or artifacts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. (Like the post pictured here that I shared recently.)
LISA’S TIP: Remember to use Google search terms to find your favorite archive’s website and social media homes! A quick search such as National Archives Pinterest might be faster than trying to find it on the actual social media site. That search brings up tempting boards for National Archives in both the US and the UK:
3. When visiting an archive, ask: “What’s new?” Talk to archivists about records collections that have recently been processed and made available for research. This is a great way to find more information and records about your ancestors. As an archivist who processes records on a daily basis that are not online or even microfilmed, I get excited about sharing what I find with the genealogy community.
Until next time, this is The Archive Lady, remember it’s not all online, so contact or visit an archive today!
Learn More about Using Archival Collections
Listen to me on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast! This year the podcast is celebrating its 10th-year anniversary. Tune in to hear more inspiring stories and tips to help your family history research. Listen on your computer or on your mobile device through the Genealogy Gems app. Click here to learn more.
Emigration records, not immigration records, are the key topic of this week’s new and updated genealogical collections. Findmypast offers several new collections regarding early British emigration. Also this week, record collections for Australian census substitutes and United States newspapers.
Britain – Emigration Records – Leaving from Britain
Early emigration from Britain 1636-1815 is a collection from Findmypast containing over 21,000 records that allow you to learn if your ancestors left Britain for North America or the West Indies. The collection includes 10 pieces from The National Archives including colonial papers, general entry books, passenger registers, and weekly immigration returns.
Each record includes both an image and a transcript of the original source material. Transcripts may include occupation, year of birth, the year they departed, their destination, and the ship they sailed on. Depending on the type of document, images of the original records may include additional details such as marital status, former residence, and nationality of settler.
Britain – Emigration Records to Barbados
Britain, early emigration to Barbados is another collection from Findmypast, centering on your British ancestors who left for a settlement in Barbados between 1678 and 1715. With over 20,000 assorted documents, this collection includs baptisms, burials, censuses, landowner lists, and more.
Each result provides you with a transcript and image of the original record. Transcripts may contain name, birth year, age, and parish as well as the nature of the event that was being recorded and the date. Depending on the type of document, images of the original records may also include additional details such as fathers’ names or information pertaining to other North American colonies such as the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Britain – The Royal African Company Records
Britain, Royal African Company, 1694-1743 is a collection of over 55,000 records to uncover the details of those on board the Royal African Company’s ships to and from Africa as well as the names of those who lived and died at company forts. These Findmypast records came from The National Archives T 70 series,Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa and Successors.
The Royal African Company was a mercantile company from 1660 until it was dissolved in 1750. It was first incorporated as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa before being reconstituted in 1672 as the Royal African Company of England. You may find the name of one of your British soldiers who traveled with the company among these records.
Australia – Census Substitutes
Over 1 million new records have been added to the Findmypast collection of Australia Electoral Rolls. The new additions cover Queensland and Tasmania. Electoral rolls are lists of names of those eligible to vote and can be used as a census substitute.
Previously, the Rolls existed as simple PDF searches that could only be accessed separately, state by state. Now, they are fully transcribed and placed into one central collection. This makes searching for your Australian ancestors easier and now you can search across all 12.6 million of these census substitutes at once. The entire collection covers New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia and spans the years 1860 to 1959.
United States – Wisconsin – Newspapers
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has digitized their entire collection of the student newspaper, The Post, to mark the 60th anniversary of the paper’s founding. These newspapers cover 55 years and are exclusively online at UWM website.
The newspapers can be searched by decade, name or keyword, and date. Some of the stories are fun and lighthearted like the Sept. 26, 1956, story on the “coed” who was crowned “Alice in Dairyland” after earlier being voted a “datable doll” at a campus carnival. Other stories include a 1975 article dealing with campus safety and parking. Lastly, you will also find more politically charged articles dealing with marijuana use and legalized abortion.
More on Emigration Records
Our own Sunny McClellan Morton has just what you need to learn more on researching your ancestors’ emigration travels. The English Genealogy Guide: Researching Emigrants to Australia, India and South Africa is available from Family Tree Magazine as a downloadable PDF. And, read our blog post titled Emigration Records With an E: When Your Ancestors Left the Country, by Lisa Louise Cooke. You will be amazed at how much there is to learn about emigration…with an “E”!
It’s National Volunteer Week in the United States. What better time to put out a call for help? Volunteers are desperately needed to help index the biggest Italian records project yet: Italian civil registration records. At current rates, it won’t be fully indexed for another 100 years.
“FamilySearch’s Italian Ancestors Project is arguably the most genealogically significant initiative ever for Italy and all Italian descendants,” explains Paul Nauta from FamilySearch. “Over 115 million historic birth, marriage, and death records from every state of Italy are being digitally preserved and published online.
“Online volunteers are needed to index these records to make every name easily searchable online for free—over 500 million names from the birth, marriage, and death records, 1802 to 1944. With the current base of volunteers, it will take over 100 years to complete. With more online volunteers helping, the initiative could be completed in as little as 10 years.”
Watch a short video about indexing these records below, or keep reading below for other opportunities to pitch in during National Volunteer Week:
Click to read Genealogy Gems posts on volunteering by: