This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 20, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
The good old days weren’t always as good as some of us older folks like to say they were. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy going back to an un-air-conditioned house and car. Perhaps the reason we long for the good old days, whether harsher or easier, is the value system back then.
In the 1930’s and early 1940’s, we were just coming out of the Great Depression, and life was tough, but the difficulties taught us good values, such as living frugally and having no interest in ostentatiousness. Women in rural communities in those days were not interested in the labels inside their dresses, for example; in fact, their dresses often had no labels. They made them out of flour sacks and bags, and even from feed sacks. Well, that was true of my family anyway. We boys and men often wore shirts and pajamas made out of such materials, too. Some of the cloths were pretty rough, but they softened with age.
Because of the Great Depression, between 1929 and the early 1940’s, people were struggling to get by; and then World War II caused refined textiles to be scarce, so the use of cloth sacks and bags was a necessity in many cases.
You could buy various goods in different kinds of sacks and bags, some sacks and bags more attractive and softer than others. Flour and sugar, for example, were sold in cloth sacks (for large amounts) or bags (for smaller amounts), and were made of very tightly woven (for obvious reasons) cotton. With women, like my mother, baking bread several times a week, it was common to buy sacks of flour holding as much as 50 or 100 pounds of this necessity.
Animal feed and various seeds were sold in what we called “feed sacks,” which were made of thicker, rougher cotton, more loosely woven. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, many of the feed sacks were made of canvas, which could be recycled by making cotton-picking sacks out of them.
Potato sacks were usually made of burlap, probably the roughest material of all. Folks rarely made garments out of these, but there were plenty uses for burlap on the farm, and all sacks were recycled.
By far, the most desirable sacks and bags came to be those containing flour and sugar, and as the demand for these materials grew, the manufacturers came out with more and more vivid colors and attractive designs. While the beautiful prints were great for dresses, sunbonnets, curtains, aprons, pajamas, boxer shorts, and quilts, the plain white sacks and bags were used for dish towels, dish cloths, and pillow cases.
At night, after the chores were done on the farm, my grandmother would embroider flowers and other designs on the dishtowels and pillow cases made from the sacks and bags. These she would then give as birthday gifts or Christmas presents. Until the War was over, my mother would do the same, and I still have at least one pair of such pillow cases. I don’t ever remember anyone being offended by receiving such inexpensive, handmade items as these.
As the colors and designs of the flour sacks and sugar bags became more attractive, many women would trade sacks/bags with other women to have more of the same color and design. Ladies would bring their empty sacks and bags with them to church, and after church they would make their trades. As an avid quilter, my mother was eager to find interestingly patterned sacks/bags for her quilts. Her quilts, now in my possession, are great family treasures. Often the sack material became quilt blocks after it had served as a dress for many years.
Gradually, after World War II was over, the availability of inexpensive cotton cloth caused the popularity of sugar bags and flour sacks to decline, thus goods companies began putting flour and sugar in sturdy paper bags (which cost them less). Many animal feed companies stopped selling feed in cloth sacks by the early 1960’s. In the world’s passage of time, this splendid use of flour, sugar, and feed sacks was just a tiny blip. But for me, it’s a cherished memory.
I doubt that any of us in our winter years are fanatically obsessed with the past, holding it up as superior to anything since. No, I believe we just want the younger generations to know that our simple values made us content with what we had and happy in what we did.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.