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Flour Sack Dresses

Until I started researching about the lives of Appalachian women who worked in the cotton mills, I had never heard of flour sack dresses.

We tend to think that recycling as a new thing, but Solomon tells us plainly that, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

During the Great Depression, all had to be salvaged; scrimping and saving was a way of life. It was not an option. Clothing for growing children was, of course, a necessity, and cloth was expensive.

Going to buy one of their staples, flour, at a mill’s Company Store created a new market for the flour sacks. Mothers made dresses, shirts, pillow cases, curtains, and kitchen towels out of empty sacks.

flour sack dresses, depression dresses, feed sack dresses, depression fashion, great depression fashion

Manufacturers weren’t slow on picking up on this, so they packaged their flour in printed bags of cotton. Even animal feed sacks followed suit to help their consumers out. Notice the variety of patterns in the Sun Bonnet Sue Flower below.

flour sack dresses, depression dresses, feed sack dresses, depression fashion, great depression fashion

During World War II, there was a shortage of cotton fabric for the civilian population, and the recycling of bags became a necessity, encouraged by the government. The military was using cotton for their uniforms.  Using feed sacks for sewing was considered patriotic, and women still enjoyed finding attractive prints on feed sacks  One feed sack could have easily made a child’s dress or shirt, and three identical sacks to make a woman’s dress. One study said that over three and half million women and children were wearing clothes created from feed and flour sacks.

Flower Sack Dresses From the Flour Mills

Looking at these old patterns, it is obvious that manufacturers aimed to please a variety of tastes in their consumers. They are bright, beautiful, and useful.  It was a great marketing ploy as women picked out flour, sugar, beans, rice, cornmeal and even the feed and fertilizer for the family farm based on which fabrics they desired.  Some sacks displayed lovely border prints for pillowcases.  Scenic prints were also popular.  Manufacturers even made preprinted patterns for dolls, stuffed animals, appliqué and quilt blocks. Rodkey’s Best Flour sold a bag with Alice in Wonderland characters printed on it.

One of the vignettes at the Textile Museum in Englewood, Tennessee, includes this quote, “I washed five feed sacks and made me a bedspread.”

I have several flour sack kitchen towels that were my Nanna’s. Even after all these years, they are the best drying cloths I own. And if you want some similar ones, try the Vermont Country Store. You won’t have to buy flour with these!

The 1930’s Flour Sack 
by Colleen B. HubertIn that long ago time when things were saved, 
when roads were graveled and barrels were staved
and there were no plastic wrap or bags, 
and the well and the pump were way out back, 
a versatile item, was the flour sack.

Pillsbury’s best, mother’s and gold medal, too
stamped their names proudly in purple and blue. 
The string sewn on top was pulled and kept
the flour emptied and spills were swept. 
The bag was folded and stored in a sack
That durable, practical flour sack.

The sack could be filled with feathers and down, 
for a pillow, or t’would make a nice sleeping gown.
it could carry a book and be a school bag, 
or become a mail sack slung over a nag.
It made a very convenient pack,
That adaptable, cotton flour sack.

Bleached and sewn, it was dutifully worn
as bibs, diapers, or kerchief adorned.
It was made into skirts, blouses and slips.
And mom braided rugs from one hundred strips
she made ruffled curtains for the house or shack,
from that humble but treasured flour sack!

As a strainer for milk or apple juice,
to wave men in, it was a very good use,
as a sling for a sprained wrist or a break,
to help mother roll up a jelly cake,
as a window shade or to stuff a crack,
we used a sturdy, common flour sack!

As dish towels, embroidered or not,
they covered up dough, helped pass pans so hot,
tied up dishes for neighbors in need,
and for men out in the field to seed.
They dried dishes from pan, not rack
that absorbent, handy flour sack!

We polished and cleaned stove and table,
scoured and scrubbed from cellar to gable,
we dusted the bureau and oak bed post,
made costumes for October (a scary ghost)
and a parachute for a cat named jack.
From that lowly, useful old flour sack!

So now my friends, when they ask you
As curious youngsters often do,
“before plastic wrap, elmers glue
and paper towels, what did you do?”
tell them loudly and with pride don’t lack,
“grandmother had that wonderful flour sack!”

Flour sack dress from the 1930's

There’s something “that long time ago” that we shouldn’t forget.

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Victory Gardens During World War II

“Food will win the war and write the peace,” announced Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard in a statement to the press in early 1943. Even before the United States entered the war in 1941, U.S. farmers were producing at record levels to supply the food needs of the Allies. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, getting food and equipment to our troops strained production and distribution systems to their limits. Farm labor was in short supply as men left for military service.

Patriotic fervor was contagious and victory gardens sprang up everywhere.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1943,

I hope every American who possibly can will grow a victory garden this year. We found out last year that even the small gardens helped.

The total harvest from victory gardens was tremendous. It made the difference between scarcity and abundance. The Department of Agriculture surveys show that 42 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in 1943 came from victory gardens. This should clearly emphasize the far-reaching importance of the victory garden program.

Because of the greatly increased demands in 1944, we will need all the food we can grow. Food still remains a first essential to winning the war. Victory gardens are of direct benefit in helping relieve manpower, transportation, and living costs as well as the food problem.”

In 1943, Americans planted over 20 million Victory Gardens, and the harvest accounted for nearly a third of all the vegetables consumed in the country that year. Emphasis was placed on making gardening a family or community effort — not a drudgery, but a pastime, and a national duty.

Victory Gardens helped prevent a food shortage. Planting Victory Gardens helped make sure that there was enough food for our soldiers fighting around the world. Because canned vegetables were rationed, Victory Gardens also helped people stretch their ration coupons.

No one could just walk into a shop and buy as much sugar, butter, meat as you wanted, nor could you fill up your car with gasoline whenever you liked. All these things were rationed, which meant you were only allowed to buy a small amount (even if you could afford more). The government introduced rationing because certain things were in short supply during the war, and rationing was the only way to make sure everyone got their fair share.

Image result for ww2 picture of ration book
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically ended the debate over America’s entrance into the war that raged around the world.  As eager volunteers flooded local draft board offices, ordinary citizens soon felt the impact of the war. Almost overnight the economy shifted to war production. Consumer goods now took a back seat to military production as nationwide rationing began almost immediately.  In May of 1942, the U.S. Office of Price Administration (OPA) froze prices on practically all everyday goods, starting with sugar and coffee.
Then war ration books were issued to each American family, dictating how much gasoline, tires, sugar, meat, silk, shoes, and other items one person could buy. Even children received their own books.

In Ingle Holler, outside Union, SC, these gardens were dubbed vegetable gardens, because they were a way of life for this clan. Every year, a garden was planted by each family; World War II did not change their way of being self-suficient.

John’s grandfather, Make Ingle, bought fifty acres of land from Excelsior Mill (later Milliken Mill), during the Depression in 1937. His children then bought acreage from their father, built homes, and lived their lives similar to their Appalachian ancestors.

The third generation, which included my husband,  always had playmates, as well as working partners. Growing up solely around extended family isolated the children in some ways, but also instilled in them a sense of place and acceptance. All looked out for everyone else; the doors were always open in each home, and no one had to knock to be admitted.

Gardens were a family affair. John’s dad Oliver dug the garden with a hand plow. It had several ploughshares for breaking up the dirt, for cultivating and breaking up the clods, and a v-shaped one that laid off the rows. Then his mother Lois supervised her sons planting the seeds. Using broken sticks off nearby trees, the two boys poked holes in the rows and dropped the seeds. Oliver then came back with the v-shaped ploughshare and covered up the seeds.

Weeding was a daily job for the boys, and water was free from the nearby creek.

Because trains and trucks had to be used to transport soldiers, vehicles, and weapons, most Americans ate local produce grown in their own communities. More than one million tons of vegetables were grown in Victory Gardens during the war.


People with no yards planted small Victory Gardens in window boxes and watered them through their windows. Some city dwellers who lived in tall apartment buildings planted rooftop gardens, and the whole building pitched in and helped.

Many schools across the country planted Victory Gardens on their school grounds and used their produce in their school lunches. The U.S. government printed recipe books describing how to prepare home grown vegetables to make nutritional and tasty meals. Agricultural companies gave tips on how to make seedlings flourish in different climates.

My dad, Sam Collins, along with his brother Wallace, fought in the Army during World War II, in the European theater. Growing up during the Great Depression and on a farm in Kentucky, he knew the importance of providing for his family. His job was to milk the cows in the dairy; this meant waking up to go to the barn at 5:00 a.m. for this chore before he walked to school. Daddy had a strong sense of the importance of hard work and taking care of his family. Though he was not one who enjoyed the outdoors, for forty years he planted a garden in our back yard. As the years went by, it grew smaller and was finally only tomato plants for our summer eating.

I can see him now with the old hat he wore in the garden pinching the suckers off, so the tomatoes would grow. He would smile with glee when he brought tomatoes into the house. For some, this was a piddling and unremarkable task, but it was more. This farmer turned banker never got over the realization that the earth was created for our bounty and benefit. By example, he taught us that a victory/vegetable garden is for each generation

As James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

By the way, my husband John picked his first tomato yesterday from our backyard.

 

Howitzers and Can Openers

“Tell me again, Granddaddy. I want to hear about how those German guns missed you! Tell me just one more time.” Sam’s grandson smiled encouragingly.

Sam knew the ten-year-old Scott wouldn’t give up until the story was told once again. The boy was a persistent rascal!

The two sat on the bank of Page’s Lake in Spartanburg, South Carolina. After Sam cast his line, he carefully sat down in a lawn chair and held his cane pole. Scott would expectantly stand closer to the water for a while and then suddenly plop down beside his granddaddy. There was no pattern to their fishing ritual; it was all about lazy enjoyment.

The fish weren’t biting, but the two weren’t ready to leave yet. They both had pulled in a few carp but threw the scavengers back. It was a fine, spring Saturday, and they didn’t have an agenda.

Sam had stopped to buy a can of worms at A & B Aquarium on their way to the lake. The can was full of red wigglers, Scott relished the challenge of trying to pull just one worm out from the wiggling mass. Then he struggled to bait the hook; the worm always lost.

“I remember you got sea sick crossing the English Channel. You said all the men got sick because the waves were high and kept crashing into your boat.”

Scott’s blue eyes looked straight into his granddaddy’s blue eyes. The young boy searched for the adventure story, and the older man blinked at the horrific memories.

“What was that town’s name in France where you landed?” Scott questioned. “It’sbeen a long time since you told me the story, and I reckon I forgot.”

“The town was Rouen, Scott. We landed there on December 1, 1944. Our ship, full of men, vehicles, and equipment, crossed the English Channel, and we disembarked on December 2. We bivouaced…”

“Granddaddy! I don’t remember what bivouac means!”

The seventy-five year old patiently replied, “It’s like the camping you do with your Scout troop. You plan to stay only a night or two, so you don’t have much equipment. You say camping, soldiers say bivouac.”

“That’s right; we can’t carry much in those backpacks,” Scott nodded.

Scott’s grandfather smiled at the equipment his grandson packed. Sam had helped Scott pack for many of his Scout camping trips. In 1944 Sam’s pack was certainly not crowded with packages of beef jerky, hot dogs, ramen noodles, marshmallows, and peanuts.

Sam pictured many of his meals during World War II. The army C-rations werepacked in twelve-ounce cans; the meat and vegetable hash was the best. The potatoes and carrots were recognizable in those cans, but the soldiers didn’t want an ID on the meat. Beef jerky and peanuts were never included in their C-rations, but cigarettes were.

As Scott walked over to cast his line, Sam began reminiscing again. “We set up our general headquarters in a small building next to the main house on a large farm. The smell of the former inhabitants, cows and horses, permeated the space, but we were grateful to be out of the cold.”

“Your radio needed to be out of the weather, didn’t it, Granddaddy?’

“Yep, the small box that held my switchboard needed to be protected. I sent and received messages during my shift. As radio operator, I transmitted to the battery and division headquarters. Those messages kept us connected with one another at all times; we communicated through telephones and switchboards.”

Sam raised his voice a smidgen for emphasis. “You know, Scott, in wartime, knowing where your friends are is just as important as knowing where your enemy is.”

Scott’s granddaddy never missed an opportunity to share life lessons with him.

“Sometime earlier, the farm had been attacked; the fields and buildings were badly damaged. My unit was called the 334th Field Artillery Battalion. Our mission was tosupport the 345th Infantry. As we unloaded the trucks, we could hear the light and heavy artillery in the east. Do you remember the difference between light and heavy artillery, son?”

The boy grinned and turned to his granddaddy. “Yes, sir! Every time I visit the Citadel with you, you show me the howitzers at theend of the parade field. Those howitzers are light artillery, and you had bigger cannons in the war. Heavy artillery cannons could bust up and level a building. They were awesome!”

“That’s right, Scott. There were hills around that farm. All night long the booming of the cannons pounded our ears from those hills. Their howitzers and our howitzers were in a relentless drumming contest. Sometimes they sounded like thuds and sometimes like whams, I could recognize the sounds of our American cannons. Our howitzers sounded stronger to me.”

“Guess it was sorta hard to sleep that night, right Granddaddy?” interrupted the younger fisherman.

“It was almost impossible,” murmured his grandfather.

Sam laid his fishing pole down and opened the cooler beside his chair. It was too early for their picnic lunch, but it wasn’t too early for a pack of Nabs and a Coke. The Coke bottle was cold to his touch. He agreed with the slogan, “There is nothing like a coke.” Sam believed in the Coca-Cola product so much that he had purchased 100 shares of stock in that Atlanta-based company.

He reached for his tackle box to get out his bottle opener. Just the other day he had found three of his P-38 C-ration can openers. Sam was going to give one to Scott to take on his Scout trips. He opened the bottle and took a long swig.

“Scott, put down your fishing pole, and let’s take a break. Before I continue my story, I want to show you the army’s best invention.”

In seconds, the pole was lying on the ground. Scott reached for his Coke and crackers. Sam handed him one of the can openers.

“Is this a new opener, Granddaddy? I haven’t seen this before.”

“New to you, but old to me,” responded Sam. “I carried these during the war. Every soldier had at least one; some carried extras on their dog tags. It is a P-38 C-ration canopener. It won’t rust, break, and never needs sharpening. Besides being a can opener, it could be a knife or screwdriver. Sometimes I used it to clean my boots or fingernails.”

“That’s a strange name for a can opener,” remarked Scott

“Well, I heard two stories about its name. One was that it got its name because it took thirty-eight punctures to open a C-ration can. Sometimes I thought one of the puncture-counters didn’t pass third grade math. It took a few more punctures than thirty-eight when those cans were frozen.

When we were in the Ardennes forest, everything was frozen, even us. My feet got frostbitten; I couldn’t feel them when I walked. It was days before they started tinglingwith blood again. And that’s why I don’t like snow to this day!” Sam adamantly said.

“Granddaddy, I love sledding and snowball fights, but frostbite probably wasn’t fun at all.”

They both shook their heads at the same time.

“I also heard the can opener was named after our P-38 fighter planes. Besides being a good cold-weather plane, it was the fastest fighter plane in the American arsenal. Whichever story is true, these can openers are a symbol of my life during the war. Take this one on your Scout trips from now on; it will come in handy.”

“Thanks, Granddaddy. I’ll put it to good use.”

“Now, let me finish my story. Then we can get some more fishing in before lunch.

It was our first night in France, and I had been on duty taking and sending calls since midnight. My switchboard was set up about ten feet inside the building. It was early morning around daylight, and I was ready for breakfast and a break. Suddenly bombing started. I was in the Coast Artillery at the Citadel; I had trained on the large artillery and recognized their sounds. The Jerries had zeroed in on us right at breakfast time. Many soldiers were standing in line with their mess kits to get breakfast from the mess truck.”

The veteran stepped back from his vivid memories for a moment.

“In fact, Scott, your camping mess kit is almost exactly like the one I carried during the war.”

Looking across the lake at the horizon, Sam restlessly leaned forward in his chair. He could still hear the shrieks of the bombs and the screams of his friends. He swallowed hard.

“My training kicked in; I hit the floor! Before I covered my head, I saw dirt flying up in the air and men running for cover. Men fall where minutes earlier they were standing, drinking coffee, and talking. Several soldiers piled in around me, and others ran under trucks and toward the cellar for protection. The enemy had us! We were zeroed in the sights of their artillery at chowtime with no cover. In minutes, the barrage was over. Our howitzers began firing back; the firing wasn’t one-sided any more.

We all ran to help our buddies. A shell had fallen on a truck cab; it instantly killed the men inside. Medics grabbed stretchers and carried the wounded from the breakfast line to a makeshift clinic. Fires were put out. Order was restored to our camp, but lives had been lost. That was my first encounter with enemy fire.”

The memories brought Sam’s words to a standstill.

Scott reached over, grabbed his granddaddy’s hand, and squeezed it.

“I sure am glad you weren’t in that breakfast line, Granddaddy.”

With a broad smile, Sam turned to his grandson, “Me, too, son, me too!”

(Before my dad died, he told me about this first experience in WWII of being under fire. I wrote his memories as a short story and decided to share it. Our celebration of Veteran’s Day is soon, and I will miss calling Daddy to wish him a great day and thank him for his service.)