|By Larry LeMasters
A flour or grain sack, in its simplest form is a cloth sack, usually made of cheap cotton, used to store flour or cornmeal. Historically, flour sacks or bags were painted with simple designs and trademarks, indicating the millers and companies that made and sold the flour and cornmeal. Most collectors seek flour sacks for the designs and advertising printed on them.
Mills were important parts of many towns and often the town took the name of the mill. For instance, Blatobulgium, Scotland, is named for blatobulgium, a Scottish nickname meaning, “flour sacks.” Blatobulgium was a Roman fort located near present day Dumfriesshire, Scotland, so the Roman officer named his fort for the flour mill located nearby.
Also, some building names derived from old flour mill names. An all-white tower in Ravensburg, Germany, is called Mehlsack, which translates to “flour sack.” During the Middle Ages, an old Prussian fort called Malcekuke, was linguistically corrupted by German settlers into Mehlsack. The German settlers mistook the original name which meant “devil’s ground” and began calling it a name familiar to them—Mehlsack or flour sack.
The most famous flour sack ever sewn or manufactured was one owned by the American storekeeper Reuel Colt Gridley, who wanted to help the United States Sanitary Commission, which provided aid to wounded American Civil War soldiers. In 1864, Gridley, a Democrat, made a bet with a Republican friend that the loser would carry a 50-pound sack of flour through the town. He performed his punishment with the accompaniment of the town band, and at the end someone suggested that the flour sack should be auctioned off to raise money for the newly formed Sanitary Commission.
Gridley auctioned the sack, and it sold for $250, but the winning bidder did not take the sack. Instead, he donated it back to Gridley to be auctioned off again. It was auctioned repeatedly until more than $8,000 was raised re-auctioning this single sack of flour. When nearby Virginia City, Nevada heard of the event (and where young newspaper editor Mark Twain was working at the time), they invited Gridley, who was a friend of Twains’, to come there. After auctioning the same flour sack several times in Virginia City, Gridley traveled to California where San Franciscans donated $2,800 and Sacramento citizens donated $10,000, before Gridley headed to St. Louis and the major eastern cities. Continued auctioning of the flour sack raised $170,000 for the Sanitary Commission’s fund, and within 12 months Gridley, through re-auctioning the same flour sack, raised $275,000.
Mark Twain made Gridley and his flour sack famous when the story was included in Twain’s 1872 book Roughing It.
By the late-19th century, colorful flour sacks (often printed with gaudy colors and eye-catching designs) were recycled for clothing, curtains, and other purposes. It has been written, “With feed sacks and flour bags, farmwomen took thriftiness to new heights of creativity, transforming the humble bags into dresses, underwear, towels, curtains, quilts, and other household necessities.”
During the Great Depression an estimated 3.5 million people wore clothing made from flour sacks. And, because flour around the world came in 50- or 100-pound sacks, many cultures, especially refugees, recycled flour sacks as a source of free textile material. One woman, reminiscing about growing up in the 1930s, stated, “Mama always sewed on a Singer treadle sewing machine and made our dresses from flour sacks. She made sure Dad would get two sacks just alike. That was what the pattern took to make the dresses right. Mama made me pinafores out of flour sacks. Flour sacks were made of cotton with pretty prints.” Today, dresses and other clothing made of flour sacks are highly collectible items. Flour and cornmeal sacks were also used to make rag dolls and doll quilts for Depression-era girls.
Some collectors search for Halloween costumes made from flour or gunnysack material. These were popular in the 1950s, and, today, these sack costumes cost around $150 if they are uncut and in good condition.
Flour sack collectors seldom end their collection with just flour sacks. Many collectors search for colorful corn meal sacks with images of Indian corn and calypso dancers, and other collectors include grain sacks that were used to sell seed.
Some of the most beautiful and most sought after flour sacks are embroidered sacks. Belgium suffered terribly during World War I, so the American Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) shipped flour to Belgium to feed the poor. In 1914 alone, people living in Kansas donated 50,000 barrels of flour to the Commission.
Once in Europe, many of the donated flour sacks were recycled into clothing and household items, but some were turned into objects of beauty. Over-stitching the printed mill stamps with colorful silk floss, and adding original designs of their own, Belgian women used their needles to pay a debt of gratitude to those who fed them. They returned the decorated, embroidered sacks to benefactors in the United States as gifts of love and thanks for the charity given in time of need.
Today, original embroidered flour sacks from World War I are centerpieces in flour sack collections.