Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, nearly every commodity — including salt, sugar, flour and feed — came in cloth bags.
Once those sacks were used, many people found other ways to repurpose those bags.
An exhibit featuring the sacks and many items made from them opened at the Kalona Historical Village on April 1.
“Every bit of fabric in this room, except for the men’s overalls, has had chicken feed, pig feed, sugar, salt, flour in it,” area historian Mike Zahs, who owns the exhibit, said during a presentation at the Kalona Historical Village Friday. “Everything in this room is repurposed.”
Zahs said that the use of cloth bags picked up during the Civil War, following the invention of the sewing machine in 1846.
“Because of the sewing machine, it became easier to make cloth bags, but most were still hand-spun,” Zahs said. “They didn’t really catch on much until the 1890s, when people started making things out of cloth bags.”
Bags came in various sizes, depending on the commodity that they were intended to carry.
Zahs explained that commodities were measured as fractions of barrels. A barrel would hold 196 pounds of flour.
“That’s heavy, and it doesn’t work on horseback,” he said. “That’s one of the things that encouraged the use of cloth sacks.”
Flour came in 98-pound bags, as well as 49 pounds, 24½ pounds and 12¼ pounds.
“That’s what you bought flour in until 1943, when we went off the barrel standard,” Zahs said. “There is only one commodity that still uses the barrel standard today, and that’s cement.”
Flour companies began realizing that people were repurposing their empty bags.
“They started discovering that people were using them for grain sacks and towels,” Zahs said. “So, they starting putting borders on them. If you went threshing, you took your own sack and filled it with grain.”
Companies found that people wanted some sacks made of even softer material.
Around 1910, companies started printing outlines on linen bags so they could be sewn together to form roller towels.
“Some bags were made of linen, and some were marketed as silk, although it probably really isn’t silk,” Zahs said. “The reason this was important was that, for so many people, every bit of fabric in their house had been a bag.
“If you went to the store and needed flour and underwear, you were going to buy flour in that silk bag.”
Bags came printed with company labels, but the companies realized that people did not want these labels on their repurposed items.
“There’s always instructions on how to wash out the ink,” Zahs said. “Each company used their own different recipe for ink.
“In the early part of the 20th century, a good housewife would never have a sack in the house that wasn’t bleached out. They always said that nobody wanted to die and have someone cleaning out their bedroom and find a sack in the bottom of the dresser drawer that still had the label on it.”
In the mid-1920s, cotton milling companies began to put various prints and patterns on the bags in an effort to market to women.
“The print bags were the first time to market things to women, because women didn’t go to stores much,” Zahs said. “The world hasn’t been the same since.”
Zahs’ exhibit at the Kalona Historical Village includes numerous cloth bags, as well as items made from cloth bags, including quilt tops, tea towels, tablecloths and various items of clothing.