In the early 1800s tins, boxes and barrels were used to store sugar, flour, animal feed, seed, and other bulk items. These materials weren’t ideal as tin rusted, while boxes and barrels leaked. Although farmers used cloth bags for storage, the hand-sewn seams weren’t strong enough for industrial use. With the invention of the lockstitch sewing machine by Elias Howe in 1846, the seams of feed bags could be strongly stitched. Early bags were made of heavy canvas or linen. By the late nineteenth century inexpensive, strong cotton reusable bags were being produced.
Early feed sacks were white with the product name and size in barrels stamped on the front. Sizes weren’t standardized until after 1935. Sacks made for sugar and flour were more finely woven to prevent leakage than those for feed or seed. A coarser lower thread count fabric called Osnaburg was used for animal feed. Osnaburg is available in fabric stores today as a utility fabric.
Feed sacks became a source of fabric for farmer’s wives. The plain white fabric was used for dish towels, rags curtains, table cloths, and diapers. Once manufacturers began printing colorful patterns on the bags, it became even more popular with the farm wives. Everything from underwear to dresses were made from feed sacks. At least three bags were required to make a dress, guaranteeing a bigger sale. Sacks were manufactured with movie scenes or characters from Disney productions. Some sacks were printed with the pieces for an actual apron or doll. Millions of people wore clothing made from feed sacks.
By the mid-twentieth-century feed sacks were being replaced with paper products that were less expensive to produce. More women worked outside of the home and sewed less for their home and family.
Feed sacks are very collectible. Look in second hand and antique stores. They are also available on eBay. Check the sacks for rust, holes, tears, mildew, and stains. An antique feed sack will have the holes from the original stitching around the top. Don’t wash sacks with bright colors as they may run or bleed.