Recycling is hardly a new concept. From their beginnings in the 19th century, empty commodity bags have been converted to other uses. Women worked hard to wash, bleach, and even dye empty commodity bags to transform them into household textiles and family clothing. Removing the inked labels on sacks was the most challenging aspect of recycling the sacks. Advice on the best way to accomplish this task was plentiful and included covering the inked areas with lard and soaking the entire bag overnight in kerosene prior to washing.
Commodity bags were recycled both in rural and urban areas. Women in town could acquire bags when purchasing staple goods such as flour, sugar, and salt at their local grocery stores. For larger sizes of flour bags, some women bought “empties” from bakers for only pennies a piece. Empty flour sacks could also be purchased through catalogs such as Montgomery Ward. In addition to these sources, women in rural areas often had access to a large supply of empty animal feed sacks, which were packaged in much larger bags and resulted in a greater amount of fabric than their city counterparts typically had to utilize. In many communities nation-wide, women also swapped sacks with friends and neighbors to obtain the required amount or specific fabric they needed for a project.
A 100-pound sack of chicken feed yielded approximately one yard of fabric—just enough for a woman’s apron, a child’s romper, a small tablecloth, or a set of kitchen curtains. Three or more of these sacks could make a woman’s dress. Ten and 25-pound flour sacks were routinely unstitched, hemmed, and used as sturdy kitchen dishtowels. Five pound salt sacks, made of thin, soft fabric, were the perfect size for a handkerchief. Full sacks could be used for pillow cases or quilt backing and smaller scraps could be pieced for quilt tops.
The popularity of the use of commodity bags to make garments and home textiles was heavily influenced by the Great Depression and World War II The severe economic downturn and subsequent shortage of materials made commodity bag fabrics valuable products.
Converting Commodity Bags:
Recycling Circa 1940
Exhibition Dates: April 2005 - June 2006
LSU Textile & Costume Museum
140 Human Ecology Building
Department of Textiles, Apparel Design, and Merchandising
College of Agriculture
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Telephone: (225) 578-5992 and 578-2281
Fax (225) 578-2697