How flour sacks went from kitchen to closet
Have you ever repurposed a household item to use for something entirely new?
Back in the late 1800s a lot of American households found new uses for their cotton flour sacks, turning them into dish towels, aprons, clothes and even toys.
“It was a different time. People wouldn’t throw stuff away,” says Jessica Faucher, corporate archivist at General Mills. “Washburn Crosby and General Mills saw a need for women – and those in the household – to repurpose flour sacks. Because of the economy, and later in the war efforts, many people could not afford to go buy clothes and had to change their priorities. General Mills really saw a chance to help women utilize not only the flour, but also to use the sack.”
Other flour companies took note, too, and used the repurposing potential of their signature product in their flour packaging and advertising.
In 1918, Gold Medal Flour sacks included patterns for Goldie the Gold Medal Flour sack doll.
Washburn Crosby’s promotional patterns went beyond little dolls.
In the 1920s, Gold Medal Flour even released a promotional pattern for a full-size clown costume.
“For the clown masquerade costume, there were promotional items that said, ‘Contact us to get the full length pattern, so you can make this out of flour sacks,’” says Jessica. “And the truth is, it was somewhat of a promotional advertising gain for the company. If they said you need 10, 49-pound flour sacks to create this costume, then consumers would go buy nine more flour sacks.”
Around the same time, Sperry Company released a practical guide for what people could make from flour sacks. In addition to clothes, the guide included ideas for a hanging shoe case, kitchen curtains and pillows, among other items for the home.
Into the 1930s, flour companies switched their sack design from plain white to bright colors and patterns.
“White was the ideal flour that the consumers wanted to buy, so they would showcase that with the white flour sack. But when companies started noticing that aprons and pillows were being made, that’s when the more vibrant colors started appearing,” Jessica says. “The flour companies would try to one-up each other. Very early on, Pillsbury and Washburn Crosby competed with patterned flour sacks as well.
At one point, brands also used easy-to-remove paper labels instead of printing their logo directly on the fabric.
Jessica says the ability to easily repurpose flour sacks was a win-win for flour companies and consumers.
Manufacturers phased out cotton flour sacks in the 1940s, and replaced them with paper bags, which were easier to seal.
In this audio clip, Jessica talks about the transition from packaging flour in wooden barrels, to cotton sacks and the paper bags we’re familiar with today.
Do you have memories of your family finding new uses for used cotton flour sacks?
Please share your flour sack story in the comments section below!
Editor’s note: In 2016, General Mills is celebrating its 150th anniversary. This story is part of a year-long series on “A Taste of General Mills” to highlight the people, products and projects that have contributed to the company’s legacy.
The General Mills Archives provided information and images for this post. Discover more about our past on GeneralMills.com and GeneralMillsHistory.com. If you have a question about our history, or would like to donate an item to the company archives, send our Archives team an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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