Tag Archives: fashion

“Calling All Chubbies” A Look at 100 Years of Lane Bryant

 

(source: gurl.com April 2015)
(source: gurl.com April 2015)

The model on the cover of the 1952 Fall/Winter Lane Bryant catalog is all smiles. She is standing with a hand raised to her mouth and shouting to her friends (who are all out of the camera’s range) in a buttoned, full-length camel hair coat:

“Calling All Chubbies!”

The words “Calling All Chubbies” appear in bold script beside her. Inside, each illustrated plus-sized model is introduced as a “Chub.” The text underneath an illustration of a blond high school student in a tweed coat reads, “Let it snow, let it blow, Chub’s snug in her fur-collar storm coat!”chub

More than sixty years later, it is difficult to imagine that this text was intended for the approving eyes of teenagers and their parents. Why would a business that was created out of a female designer’s respect for women with unique wardrobe needs select advertising copy with derogatory text?

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Yes, this is a newspaper article. Yikes! Milwawkee Sentinal, January 16, 1954

Although a high number of women in the United States wear plus-sized clothing, it may be surprising to know that the ready to wear plus-sized clothing business has only existed since the early 20th century. As a pioneer in this type of women’s clothing, Lane Bryant has produced print advertising for its plus-sized clothing lines since 1917. This early start provides a substantial view of trends in plus-sized advertising. The most notable differences from decade to decade can be observed in the terminology, images and narrative voice used in each advertisement.

Following ninety years of Lane Bryant print advertisements and catalog pages also gives a unique view of the changing climate of the women’s clothing industry and its treatment of the issues faced by women who were struggling with physical conditions that were not socially acceptable. The advertisements touch upon themes of shame, change and concealment while eventually shifting towards acceptance, and the reclaiming of personal power, self-esteem and sensuality.

Lane Bryant opened for business in 1904 as a small dressmaking boutique run by Lena Bryant in Manhattan. Dressmaking was a common career choice for businesswomen in the early 20th century, and Bryant’s boutique offered simple and otherwise unremarkable daywear in traditional sizes.

Bryant’s first attempts at ‘non-traditional’ sized clothing were aimed towards expectant mothers. At some point during that first year, Bryant took a customer order for an outfit that would be “presentable but comfortable to wear on the street” during pregnancy.[i] The dress Bryant created may have been the earliest ready to wear maternity dress available in the United States. The custom order was so successful that Bryant made the design available as a ready to wear piece in her shop. The dress featured, “an elasticized waistband and an accordion-pleated skirt.”[ii] The comparatively modest price of 18 dollars made the garment accessible to the middle class.[1] Lena’s designs sold more than $50,000 of clothing a year by 1910, an especially impressive figure when the state of maternity advertising during this period is considered.[iii]

The most popular designs in Lena Bryant’s shop were the ones that could not be properly advertised because of the modest social climate of the day. Pregnancy was considered to be a condition society preferred to keep private at the time, and the first advertisement for Bryant’s maternity wear line would not appear until 1911 in the New York Herald. The first line of the advertisement read, “Maternity wardrobes that do not attract attention”[iv] The maternity items in Bryant’s shop sold out the day after the first ad appeared.[v]

lane_5Around 1917, Bryant returned to her customer’s requests for inspiration for new designs and in response to letters with questions like, “it seems as if some way should be found for us to walk into a store and buy comfortable and also stylish clothes as easily as our slimmer sisters do?” Bryant developed a new clothing line for “stout” women.[vi] Bryant’s second husband and business partner, Albert Malsin researched the market to determine the long-term viability of a “stout” clothing line by comparing the measurements of thousands of previous customers with measurement figures taken from the records of life insurance companies.

Malsin determined that “stout” customers made up at least 40% of the women who would purchase ready made clothing.[vii] Sales of the plus-sized line were successful and once more, Bryant’s ideas were leading the market and serving a wide audience that had never been able to purchase ready to wear clothing.

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advertisement, Brooklyn Eagle 1949

Advertising clothing in larger sizes was more acceptable than advertising maternity wear, although the shame felt by overweight women became an issue.[2] At the same time Lane Bryant catalogs were “Calling All Chubbies” they were also producing copy inside the store that demonstrated sensitivity to the feelings of their customers. An article in a 1951 advertising journal, Kiplinger Magazine describes a window banner used in Lane Bryant stores that winter. “A window sign at Lane Bryant doesn’t say, “New silk prints for spring, sizes 38 to 60,” but “New silk prints for spring in your very own size.” A lot of difference.”[viii] This delicate text suggests that the terms “chubby,” “chubbies” and “chub” were also acceptable during this period.

 

Maternity Wear

After the first 1911 advertisement in the New York Herald, Lane Bryant earned the freedom to advertise their line of maternity wear broadly. A 1912 advertisement in Good Housekeeping features lengthy text about the value of the company’s maternity wear, “unequalled in style and hygienic excellence.” The illustration of a slender young woman in a tightly belted afternoon dress suggests that the public climate for such advertising did have its limits.

A 1913 trade advertisement in Cloak and Suit Review announcing the new fall and winter wholesale line states, “The universal demand for LANE BRYANT garments has prompted the establishment of this exclusive wholesale department.” The notice assured retailers that “the LANE BRYANT MATERNITY MODELS differ outwardly in no way from the most fashionable styles for regular wear and are made in all materials from a simple wash dress to an elaborate evening gown.”

The message advertised directly to the customer that year gave a similar message promising that, “attractive models in fashionable materials,” were “designed to form a well balanced figure and expand as desired. Our assortment for this purpose embraces everything for the smart wardrobe.” This catalog was titled, “W Expectations and Styles.”

In 1914, Lane Bryant worked around the controversial issues created by showing their products 6Chubbiesin use by simply pairing a pen and ink drawing of their Maternity Skirt with simple text. “Maternity Attire. Simplicity of Attire becomes an absolute necessity for the young mother in anticipation.” They announced, “As originators of this specialty we boast a thorough knowledge of the figure and its needs at this time.”

Their 1917 Maternity Corset advertisement claimed to “assure the health of the infant” while creating “the long waisted effect that makes the change imperceptible.” The photograph is notable because it appears to show a woman in the early stages of pregnancy wearing the product.

8Chubbies

In 1919, an advertisement in Mothers Magazine encouraged “expectant mothers” to write for this “beautiful style book” with a cheerful advertising style which would be used again in an advertisement for their 1940 Maternity stylebook. The1 940 advertisement clearly shows pregnant women on the cover of the catalog, along with a small illustration of an actual infant. This may have been one of the earliest advertisements to show both the pregnant woman in her condition and the end result of the condition.

The public’s impression of pregnancy appeared to be shifting by the 1950s. A more open or daring advertising campaign on behalf of Lane Bryant might have been expected. Lucille Ball presented an historic public pregnancy on I Love Lucy in 1953. The tone of a 1954 advertisement however steps away from this progress and continues to broadcast the social delicacy implied by the condition of pregnancy. The ad promises the “Mother to be” that “Nobody-will-know maternity fashions” can be found at Lane Bryant.

11ChubbiesMaternity wear was discontinued by Lane Bryant at some point during the late 1960s or early 1970s. Although it was financially successful, new management at decided to focus their company’s resources on the most profitable products, the plus-sized clothing line.[ix]

 

1919
1919

 

 

Plus Sized Clothing

“Designing models for women who require extra sizes is an art in itself” Lane Bryant announced in a 1919 Advertisement in the May 31 Reform Advocate. Bryant promised “Individualized Apparel for Stout Women.” Another advertisement published that year in Good Housekeeping  features an illustration of a “stout” woman sitting in what appears to be a somewhat troubled pose and explains, “Your appearance is more a matter of clothes than a matter of actual weight.” Lane Bryant promised that their clothes were, “cleverly designed to reduce the apparent size” making the wearer “appear smaller by pounds” The main goal of this 1919 wardrobe is concealment, not style and not comfort.

An advertisement in the March 1921 Ladies Home Journal features another stylish “stout” woman and states the promise of supplying “New York and Paris fashions” and “Ultra modish clothes with slenderizing lines.”

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Good Housekeeping, 1923

In 1923, a group of 3 “stout” women with very realistic body shapes are shown around the simple advertising copy, “Dress fashionable. Look Slender.”

Lane Bryant continued to broadcast this message of providing a slenderizing modern wardrobe throughout the 1930s and 1940s, although the women used in these ads appear to be the same size as a modern (21st century) size 12. The 1943 advertisement for the latest “Stout Woman Style Book” shows a woman in a rayon day dress and another in a gabardine twill slack suit. Both have full faces, but average sized bodies.

15 ChubbiesThese new designs are guaranteed to “Outsmart Nature!” and allow the women to “Look slimmer! Lovlier and smarter!” It is possible that the artist was assigned with the task of showing the effect that a Lane Bryant customer could hope to achieve with her new wardrobe, instead of the former approach of illustrating a woman of plus size in a dress from the line.

The first reference to “Chubbies” appears to show up in the early 1950s. The terms seems to be a “fun” term coined by the marketing team at Lane Bryant to refer to their younger line. Another teen line, the “Junior Plenty” line was also available.[x]Surprisingly, the use of the term “chubby” was created to foster a sense of community among the younger customers at Lane Bryant.17Chubbies

 

This effort was described in Kiplinger Magazine in 1951:

“A big part of the crusade to make Lane Bryant customers feel as if they belong to a large club is a wide-spread public relations program…32,500 children have been enrolled in Chubby Clubs all over the nation. They attend meetings, parties and fashion shows and receive a bi-monthly newspaper called the Chubby Club News. It contains fashions for fat girls and such features as the autobiography of a movie star titled, “I was a Chubby.”[xi]

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1957 Newspaper advertisement

With this intention in mind, it is possible to see that the advertisement in support of the “Free Chubby Style Book” was intended to be a positive catalog for children who had ‘figure problems’. Although the girls were “too chubby to fit into regular sizes,” they could come to Lane Bryant and get the latest styles and look just like their ‘regular sized’ friends without paying more for their special sizing.

lane_2The young women in the “Calling All Chubbies” catalog are presented in the same “fun” way. It is unclear how long the “chubby” campaign lasted in stores, although it became a term used throughout the industry until at least the mid 1970s.[3] Viewing this campaign from a modern perspective, it is surprising to have not found any indication of a backlash from customers requesting a change in terminology. “stout” seems to be more sensitive than “chubby,” and it is interesting to note that “stout” was also dropped at some point, when Lane Bryant and other clothing stores switched to more a more modern approach.

jetLane Bryant of the late 20th Century suggested a quest for self-confidence, acceptance and the power of personal style. A 1978 advertisement in Jet Magazine is notable for the use of a new tagline, “You don’t have to be Thin to look terrific.” The model is a stylish and very modern thirty something in a 3-piece suit. She displays a sense of confidence and sensuality that is not present in the earlier examples. The new catalog announces “500 terrific new fashions that feature “size 8” styling in Large and Half Sizes.”

The message at Lane Bryant in 2011 builds upon that 1970s sense of “terrific!” A new confident energy is introduced that is a complete turn away from the 1919 promise of “making the wearer appear smaller in pounds.” In an online banner advertisement a stylish, young and definitely plus-sized woman is dressed in a silk blouse with a low V-neckline and a stylishly cropped black jacket. She glances coyly over her right shoulder.19Chubbies The words printed beside her read, “bold. modern. you.” This woman is no different than a “traditional-sized” woman and Lane Bryant is there to give her the stylish and even sexy clothing choices she is looking for. No sense of shame is being broadcast through this photo. The model is not there to “slenderize her appearance,” she is not even being reminded of a need to lose weight or appear to be “as terrific” as a “thin” woman. She isn’t being called upon to become a member of a special “Chubby Club.” The modern Lane Bryant woman is as confident, as beautiful, as “terrific” as anybody else simply because she is able to select fashionable clothing pieces that allow her to be herself.

The commercial linked below is from 2015 and when you consider where Lane Bryant’s advertising was 100 years earlier? What an amazing step forward.

Historian’s note: Many of the advertisements listed here pop up when searching through Google Books—-that’s why you’ll see the tell-tale bright yellow highlighting over related search terms in each ad. The blue highlighting on some of the other images indicates results from a Google Newspaper search (back in the days when Google was committing resources to an archival newspaper project) The newspaper project was stopped, but Google Books is still a fantastic source for magazine advertising from the early 20th century. A more tech-savvy blogger would know how to remove those colorful (and distracting!) highlights, but since I can’t figure out how to remove them, at least I can explain why they are there.headshot

 

[1] Compared to the cost of a custom made dress from a dressmaker. 18 dollars was still an expensive dress for the average American family at this time.

[2] Upon request, Lane Bryant would ship its packages in plain brown paper wrapping without any kind of company identification. “They Sell to Bashful Customers.” Kiplinger Magazine, May 1951, 16.

[3] Plus sized girls clothing lines were referred to as “Chubby” and Boys lines were “Husky” in popular department store catalogs like Sears and J.C. Penney throughout the 1970s, and a clothing line named “Chubettes existed in the 1950s and 60s.

[i] Lena Bryant Malasin: Fashion Revolutionary.” http://www.ajhs.org/scholarship/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=283

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Laura Lee. The Name’s Familiar II”, 171.

[iv] Lee, The Name’s Familiar II” 172.

[v] Lena Bryant Malasin: Fashion Revolutionary.” http://www.ajhs.org/scholarship/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=283

[vi] Lee. The Name’s Familiar, 172.

[vii] Lee. The Name’s Familiar II. 172.

[viii] “They sell to Bashful Customers.”Kiplinger Magazine, May 1951, 16.

[ix] Lee, 172.

[x] “They Sell to Bashful Customers.” 17.

[xi] “They Sell to Bashful Customers.” 17..

Gasparilla

Lowe_10

 


Telling Ann Lowe’s story is interesting from a contemporary perspective because her narrative isn’t one that 21st century Americans are always comfortable hearing.  Very often, over her more than 50 year career, she was commissioned to create dresses for events that were “white only.”

Segregated social interactions are  a very real part of our country’s social fabric–and in many parts of the country, this has only begun to break down in the last 30 years. Lowe did have some African American clients, and I’ve found  examples of custom Ann Lowe dresses for black women from as early as the 1940s, but most of the dresses created in her salons were worn by upper class white women for events Ann Lowe would not have been able to attend because of her race.

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Yes, this is a typical Ann Lowe client. Upper class, from the East Coast (probably lives on Park Avenue for part of the year) and white. My own photo of a (privately held) Lowe fashion show program from the mid 1960s.

An average price for an Ann Lowe Original in the mid 1950s was $500.  Ann Lowe was a business woman, and while most people wouldn’t even notice that white designers (and Lowe’s competitors)  like Mainbocher or Hattie Carnegie were also dressing white women to attend “white only” events, for some reason, a modern audience expects a black designer from that era to use her work to show a certain amount of civil disobedience and publicly fight against racial injustice.  An easy thing for a 21st century American to want to have happened, but unrealistic when you consider the time period of Lowe’s work (1916 -1970).

From my perspective as an historian? I welcome that bit of discomfort because it pushes the conversation forward.  Let’s look at it. We’re not sugar coating the issue and we’re also not stepping away from or stepping around it. We’re presenting it realistically: Like thousands of other people of color, Ann Lowe fought against social injustice quietly and in her own way by excelling at her work, knocking down doors that were usually closed to black fashion designers, hiring and training women of color to follow in her footsteps and reaching out to her community along the way.


So, with that said—-let’s move into GASPARILLA:


 

Some of Ann’s earliest work was for Tampa’s Gasparilla court and ball.

Gasparilla?

An annual festival held in Tampa every winter when a pirate ship invades Tampa Bay at the end of January. Gasparilla has a controversial history that is important to know about up front,  related to racism—and the racist nature of Gasparilla was only confronted publicly when the 1991 Superbowl brought a national spotlight on the event’s restrictive history. More than twenty years later and the event has gone through waves of becoming slightly more representative of the Tampa community.

 From the New York Times article in the 2nd link, “One critic, a lawyer named Warren Dawson, said: ”It was a bunch of white guys dressed up as pirates, swigging joy-juice and throwing coins, and this time they were going to televise it before the whole world.”

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The Court in 1924: Egyptian themed Source: Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla
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Unfortunately, no full court picture appears to exist from the 1926 coronation. But this dress was worn by a court member. I was so excited to see this gown in person and take detailed photos of the beadwork that I forgot to take a full picture of the entire dress. Thankfully, the Plant museum’s curator was very kind to take a picture when I was back home and realized my mistake! Source: Henry B Plant Museum

The event began in 1904 and all related events were white only. The main event was the coronation ball where a King and Queen were selected (from Tampa high society) and a court of attendants. In the very grand days of the 1920s, Ann Lowe was the go to designer for dresses that would stand out and sparkle. She dressed 5 courts between the years 1924 and 1929. But she also created dresses for the women who attended the ball for dozens of years.

Lowe_6
A closer look at the beading on a court member’s gown from 1926. My own photo from 2012.
Lowe_9
Another detailed photo from my 2012 visit.
DSCN0756
Just throwing in this photo because of the fun behind the scenes look it gives: That gold lame fabric from 1926 actually held up pretty well! My own photo from 2012 at the Plant Museum.

Gasparilla gowns have amazingly detailed bead work. This red and gold example is covered in a blanket of beads on gold lame and silk taffeta, and each bead is set individually on the fabric. If you broke a thread, you’d only lose a bead or maybe two. If a thread on a competitor’s dress ripped, you could lose dozens of beads at once.

Gasparilla_gown
This dress was made for a Gasparilla court member by Lowe in the late 1950s: ordered from her New York salon. Source: Henry B. Plant Museum, Tampa

Ann Lowe’s dresses were legendary in the Tampa Yacht Club social set that attended the ball and even when I visited Tampa a few years ago, I was amazed to see how warmly the granddaughters of 1920s Gasparilla court members talked about Ann’s dresses.

These were loved and worn to shreds by little girls all over Tampa while they were busy playing dress up years after their grandmothers originally wore these beautiful gowns at the Gasparilla ball. A number of these probably still exist privately, in cedar chests and closets and they do turn up as donations to local museums from time to time.

The beading on the 1950s dress is worth a closer look: Pussy willows are created with bits of rolled tulle on a heavily beaded background. The Henry B. Plant Museum, on the campus of the University of Tampa is an excellent source for information about Tampa history and Ann Lowe. It’s also a neat place to visit because the main building on the University of Tampa campus was originally the Tampa Bay Hotel, a high end hotel that hosted events where Ann Lowe’s dresses were worn throughout the teens and twenties.

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Alot of shadows in this picture, but you get an idea of the gorgeous bead work.

 

Lowe_7
My own picture taken at the Plant Museum in 2012. I had to get some close ups of these pussywillows!

 

Lowe_1
Probably my favorite court year: 1928. The Queen’s gown shows the amazing silk rose flower design that Lowe would revisit throughout her career, but this is the earliest photographed example.

 Hiheadshotstorian’s Note: Most of the Ann Lowe dresses I’ll bring up on Hidden Fashion History were created for events that were white only, so rather than revisit the topic of segregation each time, I thought it would be helpful to confront it in depth once.

-Margaret

 

Visit the Gown That Introduced Me to Ann Lowe

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Photo: Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

 

There’s a beautiful costume exhibit at Hillwood right now that will give you a heavy dose of 20th century couture and give you the chance to see an Ann Lowe dress up close.

Hillwood: ingenue to icon

Mrs  Post was an enthusiastic client of Ann Lowe’s salon, but this gown may be the only “Ann Lowe Original” in the museum’s collection.  The dress is also interesting because Mrs  Post wore it in her most famous portrait.

This silk dress is actually the garment that started my Ann Lowe project in 2011. I was lucky enough to be an intern at the museum and the curators wanted to learn more about this dress and its designer–that small side research project grew into my Masters thesis and then into this ongoing and marvelously special project. It’s so exciting to see this gown all ready for the public!

If you can’t get to the exhibit (it closes at the end of December) the curator of the exhibit, Howard Kurtz has a lovely exhibition catalog that is the next best thing.

Read more about Howard’s book here

 

Introducing Ann Lowe

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Ann Lowe (and a model) in her Madison Avenue Studio, 1967 (Ebony Magazine)

There will be a lot of articles here about the woman sitting down on the left–   Ann Lowe.   You could say that Ann Lowe is the reason that this site even exists. Her story is probably the best example of hidden fashion history that I could help to bring to light and she will be all over this blog because there’s just so much to tell you about her. Even the bright silk braid at the top of this page is a detail from one of her dresses (and I’m a lucky girl to own this dress–even if it doesn’t fit me!)

ANN LOWE.


In some books and articles, you may run across her name listed as “Ann Cole Lowe”. That is incorrect.  It’s just “Ann Lowe”. While Cole was her mother’s maiden name, and it appeared in Lowe’s death notice and obituary (which were not written by direct family members) Cole was not a name that Lowe ever used, either personally or professionally, and it never appears in any of her census information, business dealings or social security information as a middle name. 


So, who is Ann Lowe and why do I want to tell you all about her? You might not recognize her name or her face,  but there’s a good chance that you’ve seen at least one of the wedding dresses that she designed over her sixty year career and you can recognize the woman who wore that gown in an instant:

Kennedy
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in her Ann Lowe Gown, 1953

At the top of Lowe’s career in the 1950s and 1960s, she operated custom salons on Madison Avenue, where she created custom debut, wedding and special occasion gowns for the women of high society and created dresses for the top department stores in the country.

But that’s just one little part of her story. She was raised in rural Alabama at the turn of the 20th century and became a leading designer for the women of the most elite families in Tampa, Florida before moving to New York City in 1928 to chase her dream of becoming a top fashion designer. I’ll give you a little spoiler—she made it.

And another…
An Ann Lowe Evening Gown at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
An Ann Lowe Gown at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
And another...
…and another (there are ten Ann Lowe dresses at the Met!)

Ann’s story is like a good book— and her biography is something I’m working on right now, so bits and pieces of Lowe’s story will turn up on this site often while I’m writing the rest of it in the BIG project. You’ll be able to check the Ann Lowe heading in the sidebar to fast forward to the latest installment.

If you are a bit impatient to find out a little more, check out these links:

The Remarkable Story of Ann Lowe: From Alabama to Madison Avenue

Pursuing Hidden History in Delaware

Ann Lowe and the Intriguing Couture Tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben

There are so many stories to tell and dresses to show you! The links above are just a tiny taste! I hope you’ll enjoy the adventure.

-Margaret Powell

From Feed Sack to Clothes Rack: The Use of Commodity Textile Bags in American Households from 1890 – 1960

“In this day of high prices I wonder if the average homemaker realizes the possibilities of the homely flour and sugar sacks?”[1]   Minnie L. Church, home economist, 1921.

The term “Gunny Sack Dress” may bring to mind a droopy and ill fitting garment of coarse cloth worn by poverty stricken children on a prairie, this image is reinforced by a Time magazine interview with

familya manager from Pillsbury Flour in 1946, “They used to say that when the wind blew across the South you could see our trade name on all the girls’ underpants.”[2] Indeed, during fabric shortages brought on by World War II, a number of United States families turned to an unusual material, the cotton commodity bag. This replaced heavily rationed cotton yard goods for the home sewing needs of their families. Cotton bag sewing was both a frugal move and a patriotic one. A newspaper column from May 1944 explained, “ Best of all is the patriotic spirit you show when you salvage fabrics. The housewife who converts cotton bags into the many useful items they are capable of becoming under the magic of willing hands and minds not only serves herself, but conserves essential fabrics for her country.”[3] The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association proclaimed, “A yard saved, was a yard gained for victory!”[4]

A traditional discussion of commodity bag sewing begins with the Great Depression and ends around World War II, but the origins of this sewing custom are more than 100 years old. As early as the 19th century, fabric was used in the production of commodity bags for the grain industry as improvements in sewing machine technology allowed for more efficient production of fabric bags with strong seams.[5] Women were sewing common household items from the fine bleached muslin and coarse burlap gunny sacks of the 1890s, the yarn dyed striped and gingham checked sacks of the 1920s, and the colorful dress print and brightly dyed solid percale bags which were popular from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s.truck

After this time, paper replaced cotton throughout the bag manufacturing industry. The National Cotton Council’s Cotton Bag Sewing Queen Contests of the late fifties and early sixties were intended to slow this crossover to paper and maintain a certain amount of nationwide demand for the cotton bag at a time when bag manufacturers were eager to move to the use of a less expensive alternative. The bottom eventually fell out of the artificial demand for cotton commodity bags during the early 1960s and bag manufacturers switched in large numbers to the paper commodity bag.[6]

earlybookThe earliest bags were made from burlap (jute) and osnaburg, a coarse cotton fabric. A 1933 booklet from the US Department of Agriculture describes the benefits of using cotton:

“Cotton bags make attractive packages; they supply a suitable surface for brand names and make possible effective advertising; they are durable and little affected by moisture; they represent minimum tare weight; and they have a high salvage value.”[7]

These cotton bags also provided a strong boost to the American Cotton industry. At its peak, 1,283 million yards of cotton fabric were used in commodity bags, “and accounted for 8.0% of the cotton goods production and 4.5% of total cotton consumption in the U.S. in 1946.”[8]

A 1921 issue of American Cookery presented the value of commodity bag sewing in this way:

“In homes where little folks are growing up, not a scrap of sacking need be wasted, for each sack takes the place of an equal quantity of muslin, since there are so many necessary little garments to be made. The sacking, while not fine in quality, is most serviceable for drawers, petticoats, underwaists, etc. These garments may be made plain or have a touch of crochet or torchon lace for the trimming.”[9]

searsGingham

In 1927, three yards of dress print cotton percale (the typical amount of fabric needed for an average size adult dress) could cost sixty cents when purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Three yards of gingham dress goods could cost forty cents.[10] In comparison, three yards of dress quality gingham used in Gingham Girl Flour sacks from the George P. Plant Milling Company could be salvaged after the use of two or three one hundred pound bags of flour.[11] The Plant Milling Company from St. Louis, Missouri began to offer their baking flour in red and white yarn dyed gingham sacks around 1925.[12] Label information was printed on each bag with water-soluble vegetable inks, to simplify the removal of the logo.[13]

Throughout the years, women improved upon methods of removing company logos and related text from each sack. Before commodity bag manufactures were aware of the widespread repurposing of their products, logos were printed with strong inks and the removal process could be time consuming:

“After ripping the sacks apart, she washed and bleached and washed, and it generally had to be done several times before they were thoroughly clean, but when she obtained that result she added to the rinsing water a very little starch…”[14]

children

By the time the Textile Bag Manufactures Association published Sewing with Cotton Bags in 1933, preparing a textile bag for reuse had been simplified. “The ease with which printing ink may be removed from cotton bags” they explained, “depends on the kind of ink that has been used. Under ordinary circumstances, it is sufficient to cover the inked places with lard or soak them in kerosene overnight. Then wash out in lukewarm water.”[15] The use of kerosene as a cleaning product is hazardous, and could create a deadly explosion from the smallest spark. Therefore, it was a noticeable development in the late 1930s when removing the logo became as quick and easy as soaking the cloth in warm water to remove a paper label.

 

bag_instrucOnce the printing was removed, the chain stitching was pulled away from the side of the bag and the fabric was starched and ironed. A one hundred pound bag of chicken feed became a 36” X 44” piece of cloth, a little more than one yard of fabric. A Life Magazine profile of the Martin family from rural Maryland described their homemade sack clothing in the early 1930s:

“Around this time feed sacks were beginning to come in print patterns as well as in white and when they were empty of chicken mash they were filled up with Martins. One feed sack made a dress for a small Martin, two or more for a larger Martin.”[16]

Inwood Herald, April 19, 1945.
Inwood Herald, April 19, 1945.

A typical rural family with a handful of chickens might take a month or so to collect enough cotton bags for a garment, but families that raised chickens on a larger scale could have a full supply of yard goods at their fingertips at all times. A farmer’s wife described their family’s commodity bag usage in the book, Feedsack Fashion:

 

girls“We had two big chicken houses and used fourteen sacks of feed every week. My husband got most of the sacks. He always tried to get two or three of the same pattern so we would have enough to make something. He did a pretty good job of picking them out.”[17]

 

 

During the middle of the 1930s, feedsacks became colorful and filled with bright patterns. Although several companies seem to take credit for this phenomenon, the Percy Kent Bag Company’s Ken-Print collection may have been the earliest.[18]

Feed companies began to notice that while a husband may have little preference in the brand of egg mash fed to his chickens, if his wife needed a specific pattern to match a feedback that she already owned, her husband began to demonstrate a preference. Suddenly, feed companies were being encouraged to use the latest dress print bags and feed supply stores were turned into fabric stores, to the disdain of one feed salesman interviewed in 1948 who said, “Years ago, they used to ask for all sorts of feeds, special brands you know. Now they come over and ask me if I have an egg mash in a flowered percale. It ain’t natural.”[19]

Life Magazine
Life Magazine

Feed sacks may have looked like dress fabric, but they were stacked in store piles with little fanfare and employees were surprised by requests to move several hundred pound bags of chicken feed to get to the perfect dress print pattern. One man remembered trips to the feed store as a teenager when it was important to run this errand with several friends because, “his mother’s preferred patterns would always be on the bottom, so he and his “buddies” would have to hoist sacks until they secured the patterns his mother wanted.”[20] Once the fabric was prepared, there was very little difference between a length of feedsack dress percale and a length of dress percale purchased in a store as a new yard good. The Percy Kent Bag Company hired top textile designers from Europe and New York City to create stylish prints with colorfast dyes.[21]

sample

When the country went to war in the 1940s, domestic fabric production was put on hold while textile companies created goods for the use of the military. Textile rationing during World War II did not originally apply to feed sacks, which were classified as “industrial” textile products.newspaper1 During the height of war production restrictions, hundreds of colorful dress prints were available at the rural feed store, providing a wider variety of patterns than any store carrying traditional yard goods at that time.[22]

bags cartoon

In 1943, the United States War Production Board standardized bag sizes into six types ranging from 2 to 100 pounds in an effort to reduce waste.[23] The production board approved pattern books for release to the home front. One mother made her young daughter’s entire wardrobe from feed sacks during the war, “the war effort took all of the fabric on the market.” She told an interviewer, “you could buy very little printed fabric.”

 

The availability of yard goochildds began to improve for rural shoppers during the spring of 1945. After the war, the child accompanied her mother to a department store that was fully stocked to pre-war levels and pointed to bolts of traditional yard goods in the window,” Oh mom, look at those pretty feed sacks!”[24]

 

 

Powell3
Source Farm Journal

newspaper2By the early 1950s, popularity of the dress print bag began to fade. Traditional yard goods were becoming more accessible all over the country and the rural lifestyle that enabled families to use dozens of one hundred pound chicken feed sacks in a year began to disappear. The cotton industry began to lose some of their most lucrative customers as bag companies began to make the switch to the multiwall paper sack. paperbagThis new method was less expensive for them to produce, and more effective in protecting the contents inside. To slow this changeover, the National Cotton Council began to sponsor exciting contests in every state in the country to encourage women to become the “National Cotton Bag Sewing Queen.”

Contests took place at state fairs and were advertised along with pattern booklet giveaways in rural magazines like Farm Journal. Regionally, the prizes included expensive sewing machines and even automobiles, with the chance to move on to the national competition and win trips to Hollywood complete with movie studio tours and shopping sprees.[25]

Model1

The Cotton Council partnered with some of the leading pattern companies of the time and released a final wave of pattern books encouraging the use of cotton bags to create dresses styled in the latest fashions. Dozens of categories were established (children’s wear, women’s wear, household curtains and table linens, etc.) and the main fabric in each entry needed to be a cotton commodity bag. Any kind of trimming could be used as decoration.[26]

Model3

Model2

 

Powell4
Feed Sack Dress. Cotton and Linen, 1956. (National Museum of American History Object ID: 1992.0102.04) http://historyexplorer.si.edu/resource/?lp=artifacts&key=1134. Used with permission.

The feed sack dress in the collection of the National Museum of American History (object ID: 1992.0102.04) created by Mrs. Dorothy Overall for a 1956 sewing contest sponsored by the National Cotton Council is completely different. It is fashionably designed with a cinched waist and a full pleated skirt in the style of the mid-fifties. It features an organdy lining and “machine quilting with a synthetic silver sewing thread.”[27] This dress earned second place in a regional tier of the “Cotton Bag Sewing Queen” contest (Figure 3) and may not resemble anything that comes to mind when discussing clothing made from chicken feed sacks.[28]

In an attempt to get their entries noticed in the Sewing Queen competitions and duplicate high fashion garments, the contestants added flashy trimmings whenever possible. The Dorothy Overall dress is lined in black organdy, a luxury fabric at that time which would never be used to line a traditional feed sack dress. If a farmer’s wife had a dress length of organdy lying around to line a dress, they would have made the dress from that organdy and lined it (if they needed a lining) with the feed sack. The silver thread used in this dress is also a clue to its status as a showpiece. The dress is a showpiece, but as an example of the commodity bag sewing tradition, it only tells a small part of the story.

A resourceful spirit was the key to a comfortable American household filled with food, clothing and home decorations during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Looking back with a modern eye, where a finished garment (most likely produced in a developing nation by poorly paid workers) can be purchased from a store at a fraction of the price of its cloth, it is a challenge to put yourself in the place of that rural woman with several family members to clothe, but no budget for store bought clothing or new yard goods to sew these garments at home. For a large portion of lower income families throughout the United States, assistance to expand the family wardrobe came from the commodity cotton bag.

A closing paragraph in a short story from Arthurs Home Magazine from July 1892 explains the phenomenon well, “So, that is the secret of how baby looked so lovely in her flour sack: just a little care, patience and ingenuity on the mother’s part.”[29]

 

Model4

 

 

 

 

A previous version of this article was published in the Digital Commons@University of Nebraska–Lincoln, as a part of the Textile Society of America’s proceedings from their 2012 conference.

 

Bibliography

 

Banning, Jennifer Lynn. Feed Sack Fashions in South Louisiana, 1948-1968: The Use of Commodity Bags in Garment Construction. Ph.D. Dissertation, Louisiana State University, August 2005.

Brandes, Kendra. “Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture.” The Online Journal of Rural Research and Policy 4 no. 1 (2009): 1-23.

Brinkley, William. “Degrees by the Dozen on $40.00 a Week.” Life Magazine, September 19, 1955, 108-204.

Cheatham, R.J.. Cotton Bags as Consumer Packages for Farm Products. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1933.

Church, Minnie L.. “What To Do With the Sacks.” American Cookery, May 1921, 206- 207.

Cook, Anna Lue. Identification and Value Guide to Textile Bags. Florence, Alabama: Books Americana, Inc., 1990.

Hancock, Angela and Paula Wilson, “Chicken Linen and Other Cloth Sacks.” Bittersweet 4 no. 4 (1977):

“History Wired: a Few of Our Favorite Things.” Si.edu. Available from http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=391. Internet; accessed 29 March 2010.

Miller, Susan. Vintage Feed Sacks. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2007. “National Museum of American History Collection: Feed Sack Dress.”

http:americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object.cfm?key=35&objkey=197.

(accessed 29 March 2010.)

Nixon, Gloria. Feedsack Secrets: Fashion from Hard Times. Kansas City, Missouri:

Kansas City Star Books, 2010.

Quillin, Anna B.. “Cozy Corner Chat.” Arthur’s Home Magazine, July 1892, 671-672.

Stolzfus, Amanda. “How to Organize and Conduct a School and Community Fair.”

University of Texas Bulletin. 10 December 1917, 27.

Sewing with Cotton Bags. Chicago: The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association, 1933.

“Women: Foul Rumor.” Time Magazine March 11 (1947) http://www.time.com/time/ printout/0,8816,776669,00.html. (accessed

[1] Minnie Church, “What to Do With the Sacks.” American Cookery, October 1921, 206.

[2] “Women: Foul Rumor”, Time Magazine, March 11, 1946.

[3] Cherie Nicholas, “Smart Apparel, Household Items Can be Made From Cotton Bags.” Mt. Adams Sun, May 5, 1944, 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kendra Brandes, “Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture.” The Online Journal of Rural Research and Policy 4 no. 1 (2009), 3.

[6] Gloria Nixon, Feedsack Secrets: Fashion from Hard Times, 102- 105.

[7] R.J. Cheatham, Cotton Bags as Consumer Packages for Farm Products. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1933, 1.

[8] Susan Miller, Vintage Feed Sacks. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2007, 13

[9] Minnie Church, “What To Do With the Sacks.” American Cookery, May 1921, 207.

[10] These prices were taken from the Sears and Roebuck Fall Catalog of 1927 (See illustration attached).

[11] Anna Lue Cook, Identification and Value Guide to Textile Bags, 73. Families that did not use such high volumes of dry goods could purchase empty bags for five to fifteen cents each from their local baker. Bakers were usually happy to get rid of their extra packaging in this way.

[12] Nixon, Feedsack Secrets, 14.

[13] Ibid, Nixon 16.

[14] Quillin, 672.

[15] Textile Bag Manufacture’s Association, Sewing with Cotton Bags. Chicago: The Textile Bag Manufacturers Association, 1933, 2.

[16] William Brinkley, “Degrees by the Dozen on $40.00 a Week.” Life Magazine, September 19, 1955, 108-204.

[17] Brandes “Feed Sack Fashion,” 10.

[18] Several companies claim to have introduced the Dress Print Commodity bag. The Bemis Brothers Bag Manufacturing company takes credit on its historical website www.bemis150.com for introducing printed bags to the United States while the article “Chicken Linen and Other Cloth Sacks” by Angela Hancock and Paul Wilson from the Summer 1977 edition of Bittersweet gives credit to the Werthan Bag corporation in Nashville, Tennesee. The Percy Kent bag company has a significant amount of surviving primary sources from the mid thirties to back up its claims of being the first company to print patterns on their bags. A selection of Percy Kent advertisements can be found in Gloria Nixon’s Feedsack Secrets: Fashion from Hard Times.

[19] Brandes, 5.

[20] Ibid, 9.

[21] Nixon, Feedsack Secrets, 62. A full page ad from the April 19, 1947 trade magazine, Feedstuffs is featured on this page.

[22] Brandes, 5

[23] Miller, Vintage Feed Sacks, 9.

[24] Brandes, 8.

[25] Nixon, “Feedback Secrets”, 102

[26] “History Wired: a Few of Our Favorite Things.” Si.edu. Available from http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=391. Rules from the 1960 Cotton Bag Sewing Contest stated “Articles must be made entirely of cotton bags except for trimmings; they must have been made after January 1, 1960; and the same items may not be entered at more than one participating fair

[27] National Museum of American History Collection: Feedsack Dress.” Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Image used with permission Available from http:americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object.cfm?key=35&objkey=197.

[28] Several terms are commonly used in the sources collected for this paper when discussing cloth bags. These bags will be referred to as “textile bags, commodity bags, feedsacks and flour sacks,” but will always describe a cotton bag of varying size, sewn together with a machine made chain stitch originally used to store household goods such as flour, sugar, salt, and chicken feed. Sources from the last ten years discussing these bags in a scholarly context tend to use the term, “commodity bag.”

[29] Quillen, “Cozy Corner Chat.” 672.