The Ottumwa Courier

March 25, 2014

How cloth bags shaped America

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — When thinking about inventions that have helped to shape the way we live today, cloth bags don’t generally come to mind, but according to Michael Zahs, they should.

Zahs is a historian, and he not only collects cloth bags but also things made out of the bags, like quilts, dolls, clothes and towels. He’s also a Humanities Iowa speaker, and the Ottumwa Public Library was lucky enough to get him to speak at its March edition of the Reminisce Society on Tuesday.

To start his presentation, Zahs explained that although historians don’t focus on cloth bags as one of the most important pieces of American history, that doesn’t mean they weren’t a key piece to the growth of the country.

“It’s an important part of our history,” he said.

In 1946, he went on to say, approximately 50 million cloth bags were made in America, and because of the Great Depression, people started using them to make all sorts of household items and even clothes.

The reason families started to use old cloth bags and feed sacks to make clothes, mattress protectors, dolls, quilts, towels and any other cloth item was basically because they were made out of cotton. They could be easily sewn into anything, Zahs explained, and women started to recycle them at a very high rate.

“We talk a lot about recycling now, but we didn’t invent it,” he said.

During the 1940s, feed sack suppliers started to catch on to how popular feed sack recycling had become, and for the first time they started to print patterns on the bags to try and market them more to women.

Zahs said that this was really the first instance in American history when marketing plans started to focus on women, and the cloth bags even started to be made with border print so women could make them into fashionable skirts and window drapes.

At that time there were more than 400 feed sack companies, he said, that would make bags for feed companies with whatever they wanted on them. Even Walt Disney used feed sacks to market his movies, and Zahs said the Mickey Mouse print sack in his collection is now worth more than $100.

Nowadays collectors like Zahs who have interest in cloth bags look for anything made out of the bags, but most of what he brought to the Reminisce Society were beautiful handmade quilts. One of them, he said, was made out of 11,700 pieces of bags.

When he asked the crowd how many had ever worn, slept in or used something that at one time had been a feed sack, almost every person in attendance raised a hand. It’s easy to see that Zahs is correct in thinking that cloth bags had a hand in helping to shape America as we know it.

The next meeting of the Reminisce Society will be at 10 a.m. April 22 in the Ottumwa Library’s meeting room. Michael Lemberger will be presenting about the history of Ottumwa’s riverfront.

— To see reporter Josh Vardaman's Twitter feed, go to @CourierJosh