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Feed sack dresses

The most common form of farming in our region from the late 1800s through the 1940s was small-scale, mixed farming. Small-scale simply means the average farms were small — a quarter section (160 acres) was typical. Reliance on draft animals or the early, smaller tractors for field work dictated this small size.

Mixed farming refers to the practice of raising livestock as well as crops. During this time farming families often raised some beef cattle, dairy cows, hogs, and chickens; kept draft animals; and raised corn and oats for market and for livestock feed and bedding. Finally, the vegetable garden was an essential part of supplying the farm’s kitchen.

This small-scale, mixed farming practice ensured farm families had a stable food supply. It also generated income from marketing the beef cattle, hogs, cream from cow’s milk, eggs, and the corn and oats not needed for livestock feed.

But the small scale of these farm operations also limited their income potential. Simply put, cash was tight. This meant most farm families had slim budgets and little money for buying extra clothes, particularly for growing children.

Marian Pagel grew up during the 1930s and 1940s on one of these small farms west of Marshall on Highway 19. She described their home and farm operation in detail, along with her many roles helping in that operation. For instance, she helped feed their livestock and ran a team of horses during hay harvest.

While describing her childhood farm and her parent’s roles, she added, “Mom made all our clothes out of feed sacks.”

I had not heard of this practice before, so I later asked her how this worked.

Marian explained, “When Dad would go to buy feed, we’d go along to pick out the print (on the feed sacks) and then Mom would use the material we chose to make dresses for us.” She added, “She would use patterns to make our clothes. She was very handy that way. She probably got the patterns from JC Penney.”

She continued, “I remember going to (country) school in the winter wearing feed sack dresses and we’d wear these heavy brown stockings that were held up with garter belts.”

When I asked if the other girls at the school also wore feed sack dresses, Marian replied, “Oh, yes. We all did.”

So it appears the feed dealers and farm families of the time had a unique relationship. The feed dealers sold farmers bags of processed feed for their livestock using materials for the bags attractive enough for a second use as material for children’s clothing.

This discovery intrigued me, so in subsequent interviews with women who had grown up on farms, I asked about this “feed sack phenomenon.”

Dorothy Swedzinksi grew up on a farm in rural Milroy during the 1930s and 1940s. When I asked her about feed sack dresses, she immediately replied, “Oh, yes. And my sister, being that she was 10 years younger than me, there was always enough left over to make a little dress for her.”

Lorie Fetzik grew up on a farm east of Minneota in the 1960s and shared a story from her Grandmother. She explained, “My Grandmother always made us dish towels and she would tell me stories about the feed sack dresses.” She added with a laugh, “[Grandma] would tell how they were so thankful to get certain prints and that other prints – you just hoped your Mother never came home with them.”

Marshall’s Ann John grew up on a farm in northern Iowa during the late 1930’s and 1940’s. She explained how her Mom used feed sack material: “Well, you know the feed sacks came from the chicken feed – and the sacks it came in would be printed. The sacks were patterned in colors and designs of plaids and flowers. Mom would tell Dad how many sacks alike she had to have to make a dress or to make a shirt or whatever. So he had to get so much of this fabric to make our clothes.”

She continued, “My first bought dress was when I graduated from 8th grade. Otherwise, we would look at the catalog and my sister and I would pick out the dresses that we liked. Mom would put the newspaper on the floor; cut out the pattern; sew our dresses; and we were thrilled to death. We had a new dress for school.”

When I asked whether this was common, she shared the experience of her grade school peers, “Only four girls from our class ordered clothes from the catalog. The rest of us all had feed sack dresses. The boys even had feed sack shirts.”

She reflected on what they had experienced growing up, “I think back to how we were poor, but everybody was poor and never knew it. Nobody stood out as different or better than the next person. We were all working hard; had responsibilities; had jobs to do – chores. That’s the way it was.”

Increased farm mechanization and the ag-markets rewarding economies of scale since the mid-20th century pushed farming toward larger and more specialized operations. This led to fewer farms; fewer and smaller farm families; increased income for the larger farm operations; and fewer farms engaged in mixed farming, among other changes. It also spelled the end of the era of feed sack dresses.

It seems worthwhile to consider from time to time what we have gained and what we have lost as a regional community from these changes to our farm economy.

— Bill Palmer can be reached at prairieviewpressllc @gmail.com.

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