Feedsacks offer more than material. Today, they’re a link to the past.

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Feedsacks were printed in a variety of patterns, but “your floral designs are probably more common around here,” says Vickey Elkins, a local feedsack collector. Here are a few examples that Mary McConnell saved from her years growing up in rural Webster County.

It’s likely many things about today’s world would surprise Ozarkers of yesteryear. Technological advances are an obvious example; it would be challenging to explain things like the internet, wi-fi and the ability to jet across the sea at a moment’s notice. But there’s something else that would likely make old-time Ozarkers scoff: The fact that their feedsacks are for sale — and some for upwards of $100 a pop.

Vickey Elkins stands with a portion of her feedsack collection at Missouri State University’s Ozarks Celebration Festival in 2015.

“I’ve given anywhere from probably $8 to $75 for a feedsack,” confesses Vickey Elkins, a collector from near Willard who developed a fascination for the sacks five or so years ago. “My grandma and my great-grandma made quilts all the time, and I know they used feedsack pieces, so that’s what sparked my interest,” she says.

That background provided Vickey with a goal when she began collecting. “I was going to buy enough feedsacks just to make a quilt,” she notes.

Vickey hasn’t made that quilt yet — “I will, one of these days,” — but it’s safe to say she has enough sacks for when the time comes. “I’ve never counted them, but I’d guess there’s over 400,” Vickey says of her collection — which, by the way, doesn’t have a price tag. “People come through all the time and ask if they’re for sale and no, they’re not,” she says. “Not yet.”

Young people don’t know what (feed sacks) are, and I think it’s important to keep the history of them alive,” says Vickey.

But there are some of those sacks that Vickey says she just couldn’t cut into pieces. Because, besides giving her personal satisfaction, having such a collection serves as an educational tool for younger generations.

“Young people don’t know what (feedsacks) are, and I think it’s important to keep the history of them alive,” says Vickey, who brought her collection to Missouri State University’s Ozarks Celebration Festival in 2015 to serve as a teaching tool. “They’ll come in and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of a feedsack, but I don’t know what one is.’ And then they’re real interested to hear the history of it.”

Behind the sacks 

Indeed, that history is quite interesting. The sacks rose in popularity due to the advent of the sewing machine, which allowed supplies such as feed and flour to be transported in bags instead of heavy, awkward barrels. “They came in 5, 10, 25-pound (and) 100-pound bags, so that’s much easier to handle in a bag than it would be in a barrel,” says Vickey.

But ease of transport wasn’t the bags’ only benefit. The colorful fabric — often sporting floral, striped, polka dotted, checked, kitchen themes other novelty designs — was used to create a wide variety of garments.

“I think it would be fun to see the feed store with all the colored bags lying around,” says Vickey, her mind wandering to the feed stores of yesteryear. “The poor (storekeeper) would have to throw the bags around until he found the piece they wanted,” she says, noting that it took three to four sacks to make an average-sized dress. “So he would have to throw the bags around until he found three or four that matched.”

While Vickey admires the beauty of the sacks, they represent something greater for her: generations of Ozarkers whose ingenuity didn’t allow for waste. “They were probably the best recyclers in the world,” says Vickey. “You know, everybody worked on the farm, so they would buy the chicken feed for their chickens, they’d sell the eggs, they’d milk the cow, sell the milk. They’d make cheese, cottage cheese, sell that. So they were recycling from what they grew on the farm. And then the feedsacks just became part of it.”


Mary Johnson McConnell (front row) remembers making many things from feedsacks. She’s pictured here, along with her parents, aunt, uncle and grandmother, on their Webster County farm in the late 1930s.

Mary Johnson McConnell remembers those days well. Mary, now 83 years old, grew up on a farm near the village of Bracken in rural Webster County. “We went to buy our feed at the MFA Exchange in Marshfield,” says Mary, whose family made weekly trips to town on Saturdays for supplies. They bought a variety of animal feed while in Marshfield, but the sacks that were used for other purposes primarily contained one type. “I think most of those were chicken feedsacks,” she notes.

Mary and her mother, Martha, used those sacks to create things such as bedsheets, tea towels, pillowcases and dresses. While most of the items were for everyday use, Mary recalls a special use of some white sacks with a fancier-than-usual weave. “I remember when Mom made me a dress with red rick rack and I thought was pretty snazzy looking,” says Mary, who was around 8 years old at the time.

Tablecloths (left) and pillowcases were commonly made from feedsacks. These examples were made by Mary when she was around 12 years old.

That dress was a treat in farm life that was usually frills-free. But while much of life centered on a great deal of hard work, Mary did occasionally spend free moments embroidering intricate designs on feedsack creations.

That’s something Vickey especially loves about feed sacks. “I love all the handwork,” she says. “Women would sit…and embrodier on a dish towel to make it pretty for her home. Because she wouldn’t have had anything pretty if she didn’t make it. It’s beautiful.”

Collecting today 

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Vickey’s feedsack collection as shown at Missouri State University’s Ozarks Celebration Festival in September 2015.

Such feedsacks haven’t been widely available since the 1960s. “That’s about when fabric started coming on the bolt,” says Vickey. “So you could just go to the fabric store and buy it instead of standing in the feed mill picking out your bags.”

But while the sacks don’t line stores’ shelves, they’re still available if one knows where to look. Vickey regularly searches at antique stores, flea markets, estate sales and, yes, even online to find her sacks. But sometimes those in-person treasure hunts yield the best results. “I have a Disney sack that’s a collector’s item,” says Vickey. “(It’s) highly collectible, and I found it at a flea market and it was listed as a piece of fabric and I think I gave $4 for it.”

But above all, there’s one thing Vickey has learned from collecting feed sacks: “If you find them, you better buy them,” she says. “Because the next time you go, they’ll be gone.”

One thought on “Feedsacks offer more than material. Today, they’re a link to the past.

  1. Very interesting! I grew up a dairy farm in southeast Kansas. After my grandfather retired from the farm he bought a feed store in town. As a six to eight year old I liked to hang around the store with him. One of my favorite things to do was to go thru the empty feed sacks to put like patterns together so when women came in to try to match prints they could more easily find ones with multiple sacks alike. They would trade ones they didn’t particularly like for ones they wanted. Thanks for reminding me of good times as a child.

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