The surprising uses for flour sacks!

September 29th 2017 by Hannah Pomeroy

This week, I have been doing research on the final stages of the milling process, what happens to the flour once it has been bagged and taken away from the mills. As a part of this I’ve been looking at the history of advertising and different selling techniques, some of which have surprised me as they have less to do with the flour than the sacks it came in…
Poster Image

Within the American journal, The Northwestern Miller, I came across an article called ‘The Uses of Ex-Flour Sacks’. A farmer’s wife from Minnesota had written into the publication with a list of things that she had made out of old flour sacks. This included dish cloths, children’s underthings, pillowcases and table cloths. She had even added ornamentation to some, such as a lunch cloth, on which she sewed ‘a bluebird in each corner and crocheted a blue edge around it.’ Most of these things were domestic, household goods where it did not necessarily matter what material was used, it was the by-product of the flour rather than the motivation behind buying a particular brand.

However, the author that used this letter in their article in The Northwestern Miller, A. L. H. Street, was keen to point out that the ‘possibilities of the ex-flour sack are by no means limited to bed and table linen...With a little attention to construction, they can be adapted to uses ranging from containers for tire chains to receptacles for the carrying of a burglar’s swag.’ Quite why the art of robbery is being encouraged here, I am unsure, but the sentiment that flour sacks could be used for more than just bed and table linen was one that companies tried to exploit by encouraging its re-use as clothing. However, there was an issue in accomplishing this, namely the ink or paint on the bag branding it. The Minnesotan farmer’s wife said that she ‘put lots of soap and soak them over night and add a little kerosene to the water’. Street questions why this is necessary: ‘Why should the housewife be subjected to the inconvenience of using large quantities of soap and kerosene to eradicate “Smith’s Best XXX Flour” from a potential nightgown?’, and suggested the use of erasable ink or paint instead.

Clearly neither of these authors had seen the announcement by the George P. Plant Milling Company from April earlier that year. In it, the General Manager of the company, E. L. Stancliff, announced the company’s new trademark sack, ‘Gingham Girl’. Gingham material would be used for the sacks that the flour was put in and, whilst there would still be printing on the bags, it would be ‘done by a special patent process, using soluble vegetable inks’. This meant that kerosene was no longer needed and that instead, ‘the brands will rinse out with the use of regular laundry soap and water’. So the techniques that Street wished to be used were already being implemented by some companies at the time of writing.

Today, one could question why would people want to reuse flour sacks? It was a cheap way to get material and for the thrifty housewife if was a way of preventing any waste. Whilst these articles both came from 1925, the greater importance and impact of this method of re-using sacks was felt during the 1930s. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 sparked the beginning of The Great Depression and any money-saving techniques were grasped with open arms. Gingham Girl, whilst the only brand using gingham material, was not the only brand to be enticing customers by using bright colourful fabrics for their flour sacks. During this time of economic hardship, it became common to see people wearing clothing made from flour sacks.

And so these fabric flour sacks could have many uses and could impact the buying habits of some individuals. However, World War Two would see a change. Cotton began to be rationed so manufacturers started using the paper flour bags that we are used to today. However, this does not mean that the packaging has lost its quirks and originality. Indeed, in Wittenburg, Germany, the world largest flour sack collection can be found in the FlourWorld Museum. Flour sacks from all around the world can be found there and the unique and different designs can all be appreciated. In the words of the initiator for the project, Volkmar Wywiol: ‘These apparent commonplace bags can tell us a lot. There are endless stories hidden beneath the chosen names and symbols that make the sacks real works of art.’

So, as pieces of art, or as pieces of fabric soon to become a fashion item, the sacks and bags that held the flour to make the ‘staff of life’ were more than just a practical container with purposes of their own that could be utilised to promote specific brands.

 

Sources:

Grain and Milling Feed Technology, October 2014, p.54.

Martin Jr., E. G., ‘Gingham is used for Flour Sacks’, The Northwestern Miller, April 15, 1925, p.226.

Street, A. L. H., ‘The Uses of Ex-Flour Sacks’, The Northwestern Miller, October 21, 1925, p.247.