Inside JCPRD: Johnson County’s thrifty past

Incredible dresses created from printed feed sacks in the foreground, with plain white feed sacks with mill logos hanging in the background.

By the Johnson County Museum

A temporary exhibit on display at the Johnson County Museum explores the little-known history of a once common object, the feed sack. How does the “Thrift Style” exhibit connect to Johnson County’s history? And what in the world is a feed sack? The connections and history might surprise you!

Agricultural roots

Johnson County was predominately an agricultural and rural area for the century following its organization in 1855. Farms spread out across the county with the occasional small town dotting the map. Olathe was the only city of note. Through the 1920s, the population of the county remained below 20,000 residents—in fact, between 1880 and 1920, the population only fluctuated by about 1,500 people. In 1920, the county boasted more than 2,200 farms of varying sizes and agricultural products. Farming remained the dominant profession and lifestyle in Johnson County through the end of World War II.

Farms across the county would have included chickens, pigs, cows, and horses, regardless of what the main agricultural crop was that was being grown. Even non-farm residents often kept chickens for easy access to eggs. Johnson County Museum.

Regardless of what a farmer grew, or really what one’s profession was in pre-1950s Johnson County, most folks would have been familiar with what are popularly known as feed sacks. “Commodity bags,” as they are formally known, held agricultural goods like crop seeds and animal feed. Even those who didn’t farm would have purchased items like flour and sugar for home use in commodity bags. It was common for people to make their own breads and other foods until postwar suburbanization brought neighborhood corner and grocery stores to the county’s northeast.

The Ingenious Feed Sack
The simple cotton feed sack was an ingenious thing. It was far easier to transport than a wooden barrel and it took up less room in feed stores and at home or in the barn. Additionally, feed sacks were made of fabric that could be repurposed for a number of uses.

In the Midwest generally – and in Missouri and Kansas, specifically – the feed sack represented a staple of rural and agricultural life. When the contents were used up and the sack was empty, the fabric could be repurposed and made into dresses, aprons, bonnets, quilts, towels, pillow shams, curtains, and tablecloths, among other household products. Even the thick thread holding the bag together could be carefully removed and reused.

Grains harvested across the county were stored briefly in elevators like this one, maintained by the Lenexa Co-Op Company, before being shipped to mills, perhaps in the nearby Kansas cities. Johnson County Museum.

Feed sacks were often made of plain cotton fiber and imprinted with the logos of the various milling companies whose products filled them or the bag companies that produced the sacks. In 1925, the Gingham Flour Company bucked that trend and released a bag covered in gingham print. In 1936, the Percy Kent Bag Company offered “Tint-Sax” bags in 11 pastel shades to the Staley Milling Company in Kansas City, Mo. Suddenly Johnson County’s rural housewives (and those around the region) had access to colorful feed sacks. Demand fueled the production of more bags in different colors and patterns.

Courting a new market base

Although women did not typically go to feed stores to purchase goods, it quickly became clear to commodity bag producers and those marketing their products that women were instrumental in deciding what had value to their families and how best to spend the family’s limited resources. Farmers went to the feed store with instructions for what patterns to buy, and how many of each pattern to purchase (it was typical to need three 100-lb feed sacks to make an adult dress). Advertisers began marketing with women in mind. For example, advertisements for eggs and vegetables began including featured copy noting “feed sacks available” in the late 1930s. Women in rural communities developed networks to increase their access to patterns and colors of material via swap parties where they would exchange feed sacks with each other.

A national trend

The Garrett family of Shawnee made this dress in 1934, in the depths of the Depression. Bertha Anne (Garrett) Cameron wore it when she was about eight years old. The sacks in the case were purchased by Arthur and Pauline Wolfe of Shawnee during the 1940s, likely at the Merriam Feed Store. All are from the collection at the Johnson County Museum.

Repurposing feed sacks was a national phenomenon during the hard years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and again during the rationing of World War II in the 1940s. As an industrial product, feed sack fabric was not rationed, meaning that access to the sacks was far easier than ready-made clothing from department stores or bolts of cloth from mail-order catalogs. Johnson Countians would have been familiar with feed sacks, and homes across the county would have held products made from empty sacks.

Eventually bag companies hired designers to imitate the most desirable prints and patterns available in ready-made clothing. With a skilled needle and thread, women across the country turned out incredible dresses, aprons, and even baby bonnets. Some bags were printed with patterns for cut-out dolls to stuff, while other bags were printed with needle-point patterns. Some were manufactured in sturdier weaves with special “toweling” stripes. The feed sack was a “blank canvas” ready to be turned into something necessary or decorative.

Falling out of favor

By the 1950s, ready-made clothing was available more widely and more cheaply than ever before. As postwar suburbs began to grow around cities across the nation, the feed sack fell out of favor. The sacks and products on display in the “Thrift Style” exhibit and preserved in the collection of the K-State Historic Costume and Textile Museum and the Johnson County Museum are reminders of an ingenuity in our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents that we may not have known was there. The pieces in this exhibit connect us not just to the material past of our communities and families but can also serve as inspiration for our own adapt-and-reuse futures.

The “Thrift Style” exhibition is a traveling exhibition on display at the Johnson County Museum through Saturday, May 1. For more information from the exhibit’s original curator, view the “Thrift Style” program recording on the Museum’s YouTube page. The “Thrift Style” exhibit is a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance with The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission and The National Endowment for the Arts.

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