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Depression Era Quilts

I love quilts made during the 1930’s.  This is a fact you may have tuned into, as some of my longer blogs this year have dealt with Sunbonnet Sue, the Double Wedding Ring, and Grandmother’s Flower Garden.  All of these quilts came to prominence during the Depression years.  Why do I like 1930’s quilts so much?  Two reasons.  First, I love the color palette during this time.  While times may have been dark, desperate, and depressing, the colors were anything but.  Bubble gum pinks and bright pastels ruled the quilting roost.  Second, I fell in love with the idea of “making do.”  And by this, I mean making the most out of everything you had, not just fabric.  String was saved, paper was collected, and every nail and screw was hoarded with a religious fervor.  The folks who were able to hang onto their homes learned to grow vegetable gardens and knew what “weeds” in their yards were edible.  Money may have been in short supply, but ingenuity wasn’t.  People bartered and traded and “made do” until better times came.  Naively I thought this also included fabric…and it did, but not to the degree I thought.

The Feedsack

You can’t begin a discussion about quilts made in the 1930’s without discussing feedsacks.  There is a common misconception floating around in some quilt histories which gives you the idea cloth feedsacks were invented and used exclusively during the Depression Era.  That is patently false.  The idea is kind of romantic – women could take something so lowly and make beautiful items out of it during the dark days of the Depression.  However, feedsacks were used for sewing years before the calendar flipped over to the 1930’s.  As a matter of fact, the feedsack by itself is a marvel of American ingenuity. 

The story of the lowly feedsack begins in the early 1800’s – at least 100 years before the 1930’s economy went bust.  During the early 1800’s, items such as food staples, grain, seed, and animal feed were shipped in barrels, tins, and boxes.  This wasn’t ideal.  Tin would rust and boxes and barrels could leak or be damaged. They also were bulky and difficult to transport.   Someone (I never could find out definitively who) decided sacks would be a far better way to ship these items.  Slowly, between 1840 and 1890, these sacks replaced their counterparts.  Initially they were heavy canvas bags. Flour, sugar, meal, grain, salt, and feed were shipped in them.  With the invention of the “stitching machine”, double locking seams were sewn along the sides, making the bags heavy-duty and reusable.  A farmer would stamp the bag with his mark or brand and bring them back to the mill to be refilled. 

This worked well until the late 1800’s when northeast mills began weaving inexpensive cotton fabric.  Feedsacks (or feed bags, as they were known then) were printed on plain white cloth that matched barrel sizes.  For example, the standard one-barrel bag could hold 196 pounds of flour.  A smaller bag – such as 1/8-barrel bag — only held 14 pounds.  The brand name was printed on the side and many of the logos were circular, a throwback to when the emblem had to fit on the lid of a barrel.  Since these bags weren’t as heavy duty as the canvas bags and couldn’t be reused, women quickly discovered these sacks could be used in the place of fabric for quilts and other needs. 

And this was good.  The basic needs, such as a quilt back, under garments, dishtowels and such could be constructed out of these cotton sacks.  You see, until around 1929, cotton fabric was on the expensive side of household needs.  Cotton was king and ruled exclusively until sometime between 1914 and 1929 when the bottom dropped out of the cotton market.  Synthetic fabric, such as rayon, became popular for dresses and underwear.  The price of cotton dropped.  As a result, more and more companies used cotton sacks for packaging. 

Eventually, feed and flour sack manufacturers realized what women were up to, and the cloth bags they had meant only to be used for packaging were taking on a life of their own.  An opportunity jumped out at them, and they grabbed it with both hands.  First feedsacks were produced in solid colors.  Around 1925, the printed feedsacks we’re more familiar with were produced.  If women liked the solid colored feedsacks, they fell in love with the printed ones.  Dresses, aprons, shirts, and children’s clothing were made from the printed sacks.  Prior to this, the manufacturer’s logo was stamped on the feedsack, and most of the time it was difficult (if not impossible) to remove. Now they were pasted on with paper labels, so they were easier to get rid of.  By the late 1930’s there was a great deal of competition to see who could produce the most attractive and desirable prints.  Feedsack companies hired artists to design the cotton sacks and colors were carefully chosen.  In the end, this was a win-win situation for the women and the manufacturers.  Women would pick out flour, sugar, beans, rice, cornmeal, feed, and even fertilizer based on which fabric print they wanted.  These feedsacks came in different sizes and the quality of fabric depended on what it held.  Sugar sacks had a much finer weave.  Sacks with feed had a coarser weave.  By 1914, sacks came in 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1-pound sizes, but there wasn’t any consistency in them.  The sizes were determined by the manufacturer and there were no standards.  In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt standardized the sizes – a 50-pound feedsack measured 24-inches x 38-inches and a 100-pound sack measured 39-inches x 46-inches. 

Besides causing competition among feedsack producers, the popularity of the cotton bag had an unexpected side effect – a black market of sorts.  Women not only traded them among themselves, but many were also able to sell them back to the store where they purchased the feedsacks and the store owners could re-sell the empty bags.  Chicken farmers – who went through a lot of feedsacks – often developed a nice side hustle selling their extra empty bags. 

Like most significant historical objects, their time in the spotlight is not so neatly bookended.  When the term “feedsacks” is used among quilters as well as non-quilters, most folks tend to think of their use from 1930-1939.  We assume once their popularity peaked during the Depression, they slid into obscurity in the 1940’s. 

That assumption is wrong.

Yes, feedsacks were used by women for clothing and bed coverings during the economic hard time of the boll weevil depression in the south in the 1920’s and the Great Depression that followed it.  However, feedsacks continued to be used for sewing before these times and afterwards, well after World War II.  Even though the economy improved during the 1940’s, World War II caused the need for us to conserve our resources for the war effort.  Using feedsacks for sewing was now not only a nod to thriftiness, but it was also patriotic.  So feedsack manufacturers continued to produce bags with attractive prints and colors.  Dress, apron, children’s clothing, and household linen patterns were printed.  One feed sack could easily accommodate a child’s shirt or dress and three identical feedsacks could make a woman’s dress.  Often the patterns came with directions for using the string pulled from the sides of the sack for crocheted or knitted items.  A 1942 estimate showed that three million women and children of all income levels were wearing print feedbag garments. 

Fast forward to now, and we can still find feedsacks at auctions and some yard and estate sales.  A quick glance at Ebay showed 3,752 listings.  Feedsacks are still available for purchase, but with 1930’s reproduction fabric on the market, how can you be sure you’re buying an actual feedsack?  First, don’t depend on a label being present, even on the older feedsacks.  The paper labels were easily removed.  A coarse weave isn’t a good indicator either, as this fabric could also be purchased off the bolt.  The best way is to look for this somewhere on the bag:

This line of holes and stitches are from the chain stitching which held the feedsack together.  Even better than the line of holes is finding the actual thread present somewhere on the bag.

The Myths Surrounding Depression Era Quilts

There are several quilting myths surrounding the Depression Era quilts.  The first one being why they were made.  The idea these quilts were made to keep people warm because blankets were either too expensive or unavailable is correct.  However, that is not the only reason they were made.  As I mentioned in my blog about the Double Wedding Ring Quilt, they were also made for entertainment.  Women (and some men) became pretty competitive in quilt construction.  They competed against each other to see how many pieces they could fit into a block like the Double Wedding Ring or how small they could make the blocks.  So, besides being a source of warmth, these quilts also served as a source of fun and a distraction from the sometimes day-to-day survival of the Great Depression.

The second myth involves the exact time frame of these quilts.  It’s easy to believe that the Depression Era quilts began on January 1, 1930 and gradually dwindled out by December 31, 1939 because this is roughly the time period of the Great Depression (although historians run the Great Depression from August 1929 – March 1933).  By the year 1940, most historians and quilters turn their attention to World War II.  It’s important to remember the quilts made during the Depression were inherently scrappy quilts – bright, beautiful scrappy quilts which were usually set with white as a neutral (which even today with all our fabric choices, if you’re making a scrappy quilt, white is the go-to neutral to make all your fabrics play nicely together).  And these scrappy quilts were actually birthed in 1925 and their life span ran into the 1950’s.  But because of the wide use of feedsacks during the 1930’s, they tend to be lumped into a 10-year span. 

This quilt movement began around 1925 with the fascination for “colonial” antiques.  This interest came from a growing nostalgia for an imagined American past as well as a developing pride in American arts and crafts.  This movement has been called the Colonial Revival, but there’s great speculation on just how accurate the nostalgia was about our past.  This revival included furniture, rag rugs, and patchwork quilts.  Decorators and magazines encouraged folks to dig through their attics and see if any old quilts were up there and use them as bed coverings.  “And if you can’t find any, surely it will be easy for you to make your own” (Chicago Tribune. 1933).  Trendsetters encouraged a return to handwork, including applique and fine hand quilting, which had fallen out of favor in the 19th century when the sewing machine was introduced for wide consumer purchase. 

However, the one thing decorators and magazines changed about these older quilts was the color scheme.  Instead of the darker, muted, grayed-toned or black-shaded fabrics in the antique quilts, they promoted lighter pastel colors – the 1920/1930 color palate we’re familiar with. 

New quilts were made from old patterns with lighter, brighter fabrics. 

With the 1920’s Colonial Revival pushing the art of quilting, by the time the Great Depression did arrive, quilt making was in full swing, with scrappy quilts playing front and center.  Quilting was a hobby for both rural and urban women of all classes.  Some quilt historians believe this scrappy look can be explained by a desire for a variegated look in nearly everything. It was even found in the dishware during this time.  This tableware was designed by Russell Write in the 1920’s and included simple dishes in a variety of bright or pastel shades. 

Russell Write Dinner Ware

Fiesta Ware is probably the best known of this style dishware, but several other china lines also included the “mismatched” plates. 

The third myth involving these quilts is the one of frugality.  The scrappy look was a trend.  The fact was the more pieces of fabric in a quilt during this time period wasn’t a statement of thriftiness but an indication of the quilt maker’s access to abundant fabric.  The small scraps in a quilt are rarely bits leftover from sewing but have been deliberately cut down from larger pieces of material.  And the white fabric which was used as a neutral in these scrappy quilts generally was not leftover from plain feedsacks or other sewing – it was purchased off the bolt. 

Furthermore, it was possible to buy the scrappy look if you didn’t have your own feedsack and fabric stash.  Magazines advertised packets of small scraps and factory leftovers.  Sears, Roebuck, and Company sold boxes of cotton prints pre-cut for patterns such as the Double Wedding Ring and Grandmother’s Flower Garden.  A quilter could also purchase pre-cut kits for Trip Around the World, Butterfly, and the Fan.  What we now call the Big Box Stores quickly realized while quilting was a necessity for some, it was still just as much of a hobby then as it is now.   The Ladies Art Company offered the first pre-cut kits in 1922 and the idea spread like wildfire.  The kits served several purposes.  First, it eliminated choosing fabrics.  With a kit, the quilter could rest assured the material harmonized.  Second, the fabric was already cut – a clear win for quilters like me who really dislike this part of quilting.  Marie Webster started the Practical Patchwork Company which also sold kits (more on Marie later – she was so awesome).  Then Sears, Roebuck, and Company sponsored a national competition for the 1933 World’s Fair.  Anne Orr took two of the prizes.  Ms. Orr wrote a column for Good Housekeeping.  Several of her designs –including “Autumn Leaf” and “The Lincoln Quilt” — were developed as patterns for sale by Orr Studio which she owned. Eventually these kits were picked up by Good Housekeeping who offered them for purchase through the magazine.  Another firm, the Frederick Herrshner Company of Chicago sold a kit for a Double Wedding Ring quilt with die cut pieces ready to stitch for $3.95 in 1932.  So, if you had the cash, the scrappy look could be bought – pre-cut and ready to rock and roll.

Next week we’ll take one more deep dive into the history of these quilts, and take a look at the largest ever quilt show.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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