HISTORY OF FEEDSACKS IN THE U.S.
In the early 1800's, goods such as food staples, grain, seed, and animal feed were packed for transportation and storage in tins, boxes, and wooden barrels. But tin rusted and boxes and barrels leaked and were difficult to transport. But in 1846, with the invention of a stitching machine that sewed double lock seams strong enough to hold the contents of a bag, homespun linen was used by farmers to store goods such as flour, sugar, meal, grain, salt and feed.
The bags were reusable with the farmer bringing an empty sack stamped with his mark or brand to the mill to be filled. This changed when the North East mills began weaving inexpensive cotton fabric in the late 1800's. Feedsacks (or feedbags) were initially printed on plain white cloth and in sizes that corresponded to barrel sizes. For example, a one-barrel bag held 196 pounds of flour. A 1/8 barrel bag only held 24 pounds. The brand name of the flour was simply printed on the side of the bag.
Thrifty farm wives quickly discovered that these cotton bags were a great source of fabric for dishcloths, diapers, nightgowns and other household uses. Manufacturers decided to take advantage of this and started offering sacks in various prints and solid colors as a marketing ploy. It would take three identical sacks to make a dress, for example, and the farmer just might be induced to buy more that way.
The flour industry consumed the largest share of the feedsack market with sugar next, followed by feed, seeds, rice, and fertilizer. These feedsacks came in different sizes, and the quality of the cloth varied with the item it carried. Sugar sacks, for example, were much finer in weave. By 1914, sacks came in 10, 6, 4, 3, 2 and 1-pound sizes. President Roosevelt standardized sizes in 1937. A 50-pound feedsack measured 34 x 38 inches. A 100-pound sack measured 39 x 46.
Magazines and pattern companies began to take notice of feedsack popularity and published patterns to take advantage of the feedsack prints. Matching fabric and even matching wrapping paper was available, too. A 1942 estimate showed that three million women and children of all income levels were wearing print feedbag garments.
Source: Driessen, Kris. Quilt History. Feedsacks. http://www.quilthistory.com/feedsacks.htm.