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A Brief History of the "Feedsack"

By Jane Clark Stapel

The history of the cloth bag started in the early years of settling what later became the United States. At that time food staples, grain, seed, and animal feed were packed in tins, boxes, and wooden barrels. However, tin cans rusted and barrels wore out, allowing pests to get at the products within. Both of these forms of storage were also awkard to transport. They required a wagon and horses or mules, something many farmers or widows of farmers did not have. How much easier to toss a bag of feed over the back of a horse! The problem, however, was that no one could sew a seam strong enough to hold the content of the bag. The solution came in 1846 with the invention of the sewing machine, which made it possible to sew seams to make the sacks secure. M. Hurd of Auburn, NY patented a machine for making flour sacks that was cost efficient.

Cloth was also scarce until the New England mills began weaving a good supply of American-made fabric in the 1800s. With U.S. manufacturers getting into the field, the American market no longer depended upon costly English and foreign yard goods. With machines to make the seams stronger and U.S. fabric now available, the American textile sack was possible. From about the 1880s through the 1940s the bags, as much as the products they contained, became hotly advertised items. One of the largest bag manufacturers in the nation was the Bemis Brothers Bag Company based in Minneapolis, MN. Today the Bemis bags and, in fact, all cloth bags are important collectors' items.

The terms "feedbags" or "feedsacks" are not totally accurate. According to Anna Lue Cook in her book Textile Bags --The Feeding and Clothing of America, the flour industry consumed the largest share of the feedsack market with more than 42 percent, sugar was next with 17 percent, behind that were feed, seeds, rice, and fertilizer. Some people refer to these utilitarian bags as simply textile or cloth bags, chicken linen, or 'pretties'. The loosely woven early bag was displaced when machinery became available and, as the trend for cloth packaging became more popular, a tighter cotton bag was more commonly used. When the product inside was used up, the frugal housewife, who wasted no scrap of cloth that came her way, was soon recycling the bags.

Copyright 1997, Jane Clark Stapel

 

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