When US farmers bought seeds or flour during the Great Depression, the most important question was this: what patterns were printed on the sack?
In early 19th century USA, grain and feed were typically stored and transported in barrels. By the 1960s, paper packaging was the norm. For the hundred years between these two times, cotton cloth sacks were the most economical and practical way to bundle up flour, seed, and other bulky commodities. This time period also saw some of the most extreme points of privation in the States: a civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Long Depression, the Dust Bowl… and especially in rural areas good quality cloth was often either rationed or too expensive. The solution was clear: make clothing out of feed sacks and flour sacks.
Such a desperate measure would be unremarkable in isolation, but feed sack dresses became so widespread and popular that the companies selling products began printing colourful patterns and designs on their bags – the sacks’ potential as sewing materials had become a major selling point. Women got together to trade sacks and find matching patterns, and pedlars transported empty sacks from town to town to sell them. The companies began printing their logos in ink that would dissolve in water; they did this so that the sacks could be more easily converted to clothing. Newsletters and pamphlets of techniques and patterns were published (you can see a copy of Sewing with Cotton Bags from 1937 in the links below).
Making clothing out of feed sacks was not limited to the United States, of course; in China they were called “hunger clothes” and the practice was also present in Europe and Australasia. At its peak during World War II, it was estimated that at any one time three million people (mainly children and women) were wearing feed sack clothing in the United States. With the switch to cheaper paper packaging after that war the practice mostly died out, but not before the cotton manufacturers began sponsoring fashion shows with sacks to try to keep demand up. It was not successful.
[An end note: my wee baby boy arrived 11am yesterday after a very speedy labour. The post that day was, appropriately and coincidentally, the origin of life revisited.]