The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights

July 21 2017 3:56 PM

How Depression-Era Women Made Dresses Out of Chicken Feed

By the middle of the 19th century, it became more cost-effective for companies that shipped commodities like flour and animal feed in wooden barrels to package their goods in fabric instead. Between then and the middle of the 20th century, flour, sugar, seed, and other commodities you'd now find in the bulk food aisle arrived in American households in fabric sacks.

Women made garments out of the leftover sacks, and companies noticed. By 1925, at least one company, Gingham Girl flour, packaged its goods in dress-quality fabric and used its sacks as a selling point. By the Depression years, printed sacks were widely reused, and the practice continued through fabric-starved years of World War II and into the early 1960s.

sacks
"Flour sacked in new printed fabrics. Chart above indicates various uses of the sacking. Throughout the rural areas and in migrant camps garments made of this sacking are seen. Migrant camp near Sebastian, Texas." Photo by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration, February 1939.

Library of Congress

By the 1930s, businesses saw fabric sacks as crucially important for the promotion of their products. Kendra Brandes writes that trade organizations sponsored feed-sack fashion shows, and manufacturers hired designers to make sure the prints they chose would be appealing to women. The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association published a booklet, Sewing with Cotton Bags, in 1933, advising consumers how to get company logos out of sacks. (At that time, you had to soak the logo's ink in lard or kerosene overnight. By the late 1930s, companies began to use soluble inks that made the process much easier.)

nmah20002
Feedsack dress made by Dorothy Overall, of Caldwell, Kansas. The dress won second prize in the mid-South section of the Cotton Bag Sewing Contest, sponsored by the National Cotton Council and the Textile Bag Manufacturers Association, in 1959.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

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In writing her history of feed sack fashion, Brandes talked to older people who remembered feed store managers saving particular sacks for farm wives who were looking to match patterns. But at least one feed salesman, quoted in 1948, found the shift in purchasing power from the farmer to his wife to be discomfiting. “Years ago they used to ask for all sorts of feeds,” this salesman grumbled. “Now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain't natural.”

jorenapettway
"Jorena Pettway making flower decorations for her hoome. She has made practically all her own furniture and her own bedspreads and chair covers from flour sacks, etc. Gee's Bend, Alabama." Photo by Marion Post Walcott, working for the Farm Security Administration, May 1939.

Library of Congress

Although we now look back at the feed-sack era as a charming time of frugality and thrift (and we have the Etsy listings of vintage fabric to prove it), during the Depression, there was some shame involved with dressing your family in feed sacks. Widely repeated jokes about feed-sack underwear (a Pillsbury Flour Company manager, quoted in Time magazine in 1946: “They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls' underpants”) tapped into a degree of discomfort with the admission that you were dressed in recycled fabric.

Brandes reported: “For many women in rural America, use of these sacks for clothing was a mark of poverty. Soaking off logos, dying fabrics, and using embellishments of ribbon, rickrack, embroidery, and decorative buttons helped make the feed sack dress or shirt less distinguishable from 'store bought' garments.”

wifeoffsa
"Wife of FSA client holding dresses which she made from flour sacks. Sabine Farms, Marshall, Texas." Photo by Russell Lee, working for the Farm Security Administration, May 1939.

Library of Congress

To see some of these patterns in bright color, check out this post. (I didn't reuse these images because I couldn't identify provenance for most of them, but they sure are great.)

July 5 2017 8:00 AM

A Deep Digital Archive of Social Transformation in 1970s Berkeley

A group of students at the University of California, Berkeley, has created a fascinating digital archive of that city's history in the 1970s. Berkeley was, the site's introduction explains, “the rare city in the United States where the transformations of the 1960s continued to gain momentum in the 1970s.” The project collects and digitizes some of the paper traces of that momentum.

This is an archive of experimentation, offering handbooks, fliers, guidelines, journals, manifestos, and proposals. Here are a few of my favorites.

Above is the cover of a journal kept by Jodi Mae Mitchell, who left West Virginia for Berkeley in the early 1970s. The archive collects multiple pieces of her writing, tracking her experiences in Berkeley and then on a commune in Northern California.

June 9 2017 4:21 PM

Dramatic Courtroom Drawings From Decades of American Trials

The Library of Congress has a great new online exhibit of courtroom art drawn during trials held between 1964 and today. The drawings, from the Library's Courtroom Illustration Collection, are full of emotion, with artists capturing the reactions of defendants, judges, lawyers, jurors, and onlookers.

In the image above, by Pat Lopez, a sheriff and prosecutor display the chain used in the murder of Matthew Shepard, while one of the defendants, Russell Arthur Henderson, watches. Lopez's use of lavender shading and negative space gives the image an eerie sense of twilight importance.

May 17 2017 10:41 AM

Dark Satirical Maps from a Depression-Era Anti-Fascist Magazine

Ken magazine was the 1937 brainchild of David Smart and Arnold Gingrich, the publisher and editor of the then–four-year-old Esquire. Ken was published only from April 1938 through August 1939 and is most notable for having put several of Ernest Hemingway's dispatches from the Spanish Civil War into print. These three maps from Ken's pages show Americans both feared and mocked worldwide fascism in the years right before World War II.

May 2 2017 3:36 PM

Admissions Books for an Early-19th-Century Prison Hold a Wealth of Stories

The American Philosophical Society's library holds four fascinating admissions books offering details on prisoners held at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1830s and 1840s. Three of those books seem to have been kept by Thomas Larcombe, a Baptist minister who was the first to hold the position of “moral instructor” at the prison.

April 25 2017 11:04 AM

A Few Way-Less-Catchy Discarded Titles for S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders

Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton’s cult classic The Outsiders. Hinton wrote the novel while still attending high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and when she signed the publisher’s contract in May 1966, her mother had to co-sign because the author was still a teenager.

Jan. 18 2017 1:02 PM

An Odd and Obsolete 19th-Century Nickname Map of the American States

This nickname map, printed as a promotional item by the livestock supply company H.W. Hill & Co. in 1884, is a wildly haphazard representation of the variety of American state nicknames in the late 19th century.

Jan. 5 2017 4:17 PM

Five More Compelling Digital History Projects We Loved in 2016

Last week, I shared five of my ten favorite digital history sites from 2016. Here, without further ado, is the second half of that list.

Dec. 30 2016 3:57 PM

Five Fascinating Digital History Projects We Loved in 2016

For four years now, I've rounded up 10 interesting digital history projects, born in the 12 months previous, for your browsing fun. (Here are my 2015 picks: Part 1. Part 2. Here are the 2014 lists: Part 1. Part 2. And 2013: Part 1. Part 2.)

Dec. 16 2016 4:29 PM

Beautiful Pages of a Late Medieval Monk’s Sketchbook

In these pages, a 15th-century monk living in southwest Germany tested ideas for the creation of illuminated manuscripts. The website Public Domain Review recently featured images from this book, known as The Illuminated Sketchbook of Stephan Schriber, which is held by the Bavarian State Library in Munich.

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