I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers wouldn’t know what this column is about since the age of flour sacks has been gone for a long time. But to very senior readers, it may bring back some pretty good memories or maybe some that aren’t so good. For those of the younger generation there was a time when flower, meal and possibly sugar were packaged in brightly printed material sacks.
The sacks were very real and served a purpose, particularly during the Great Depression when almost no one had money for anything but the staples like flour that they had to have to make bread.
Those times were tough and picking out a sack of flour was almost like going to an upscale department store to pick out a new dress. The material that contained the flour and maybe sugar, rice or beans, or even cattle feed was responsible for many young girls’ and boys’ having nice looking dresses or shirts to wear to school.
That was during the time when children who lived in the country walked along graveled roads to either meet the school bus or walk to school. I’m sure most have heard the stories about “walking several miles in the snow to get to school every day.” It was a must for mothers to be able to sew and about that time “domestic science” (sewing) classes were introduced in the high schools.
Clara Clay, a good Press Women of Texas friend who lived in Houston, sent me a poem by Colleen B. Hubert titled “The Flour Sack.” Clara loves poetry and she was a reporter for the Pasadena newspaper and wrote a column for many years after she retired.
While I don’t remember ever wearing a cotton flour sack dress, I remember hearing about them from my mother and grandmothers, who did. The patterns were lovely and wearing them wasn’t a stigma because almost everyone else wore them too. My grandmother and great-grandmother made her aprons out of flour sacks.
That was during a period when we didn’t throw away anything. When our clothes wore out, they went into the “rag bag.” We still used them for dusting, washing the windows, the cars and what have you.
There was no plastic wrap or plastic bags with zipper tops to save leftovers in so children were urged to eat what was on their plate “because children in China were starving.” That was the start of children’s obesity, in my opinion. I certainly think that’s why I’ve fought my weight all these years. Mother made my sister and me sit at the table until we cleaned our plates — or at least she thought we did. If we had a puppy, it helped us out of our dilemma.
Pillsbury’s Best, Mother’s and Gold Medal flour had their names stamped in purple and blue on the sack so unless the seamstress was pretty creative, those garments bore the name of the company that produced the flour that the family used.
Once a sack of flour was emptied, the material was washed, folded and stored until another sack or two in matching design was emptied to have enough material to sew a garment.
Clothes weren’t the only use for the sacks, however. Often they were filled with chicken or duck feathers for a pillow. They were the first “backpacks” or “schoolbag” when school children carried their books back and forth to school. Earlier on, they were even used as mail sacks when they were filled and slung over the saddle horn for a trip home.
The flour sack material could be bleached white and worn as bibs, used as diapers for babies, or head scarves. They were made into skirts, blouses, slips and bloomers too.
What about braided rugs? Mom or grandmother would cut the sacks into strips and braid them. They were pretty durable too. A braided rug made with a more long-lasting material is still used today. Curtains covered the windows in many houses. The homemaker would bleach, then dye the material to pretty-up the house.
The material was — and a cotton material still is — used as a strainer. I’ve seen my grandmother making jelly and straining the juice through a cotton cloth, then squeezing the pulp to get all the juice out.
A flour sack sling was — and still would be today — fashionable for a sprained or broken arm or to use after shoulder surgery. It would be much more attractive than the dark blue slings used today. I saw someone who had used that idea not long ago and it was really attractive. I must remember that, just in case.
The sacks were sturdy enough to use as window shades or to stuff a crack around a door where the cold wind chilled the house. They were dish towels and the material later could be bought by the yard for that purpose. Nothing was more absorbent than the flour sack material. Many embroidered pretty kitchen designs on one corner of the dish towel. My grandmother and my mother did that and even I embroidered some many years ago. Today you can buy much prettier dish towels that don’t require all the manual labor.
Instead of grabbing a “hot pot holder,” unless someone was clever about crocheting one from string, our grandmothers grabbed a piece of flour sack material to fold up and lift hot pots from the oven. They were used to cover meals taken to neighbors or to the men working in the fields.
They were used to polish and clean the stove and table or to scrub the walls or facings. They were great, and still are, for dusting furniture even though you now can buy special, treated microfiber dust cloths that probably pick up a lot more dust than a feather duster or a cloth that just moves the dust around.
Flour sacks could be made into Halloween costumes such as ghosts or fashioned into princess outfits. They could even be used as parachutes for cats who hopefully survived the jump.
Our grandchildren may think we’ve lost it when we revert to our grandmother’s ways, but they say “what goes around, comes around” and who knows. Pillsbury or some other flour distributor may one day realize what they’ve lost. Those colorful flour sacks might appear once again on the grocery shelf.
Would that be so bad?
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.