By Edie McGinnis
There are only 13 days left before Santa comes to call. Twelve, if you open gifts on Christmas Eve. That’s not much time left if you’re making gifts, especially those of the quilted kind.
When I watch my grandkids open their gifts in a flurry of wrapping paper and ribbon, I am always reminded of a friend of mine. Ann was a contemporary of my parents. My mom, dad, Ann and her husband, Walt, used to get together to play rummy. I remember standing by Ann’s chair when they were playing cards. Ann would never tell me to run along. She would just put her arm around me and snuggle me in close to her side.
The years passed, and I did that thing that all kids do: I grew up. I married and had children of my own, and I became a quilter and a feedsack collector. By this time, Ann was in her late 80s.
I would fly out to California to visit. We played rummy every night – only there were just the three of us. My parents had both passed away, and I had taken their place in the constant rummy game.
I recall chatting with Ann about feedsacks as we shuffled the cards one day. I asked her whether she remembered wearing clothing made from feedsack fabric.
“Oh, yes, I remember that.”
But the clothing wasn’t the thing she remembered most. The recollection that lived in her mind most vividly was going to bed on Christmas Eve and hearing her mother run her treadle sewing machine long into the wee hours of the morning.
On Christmas day, Ann and her two sisters would bounce out of bed and tear downstairs to see whether Santa had come. Inevitably, a rag doll made from a feedsack would be waiting for each of them.
As Ann told me of that little piece of her life, a little smile crept out and softened the faraway look in her eyes. I knew for a few moments that she could clearly see those dolls and herself as a child again.
I don’t know whether Ann and her sisters had primitive dolls or ones made from printed feedsacks. She didn’t elaborate, and I think it was enough that her mom worked so hard to give them gifts.
During the Depression years, Sea Island Sugar printed a doll on the back of its 10-pound sugar sacks. In 1935, it printed a series called “Dolls of the World.” The dolls wore clothing that was most people’s preconceived notion of how children dressed in a particular country.
In 1936, Sea Island switched from dolls and printed a series of soft toys on the back of the bags. The toys included Little Red Riding Hood, two other dolls, a panda and a frog.
Sea Island Sugar wasn’t the only commodity bag that catered to parents of small children. Percy Kent Bag Co. supplied bags to Bewley Biscuit Co. that sported quilt blocks on the back. Mom or grandma could use the blocks when making a child’s quilt or a soft cloth book.
Bemis Bag Co. also printed “Quilt Blox” on the back of some of its bags. The company bragged that the cloth was pure cambric and the “designs are in fast colors and may be embroidered or not as desired.”
Fulton Bag Co. made bags it labeled StitchCraft. The reverse side of the bags had scenes from nursery rhymes and were intended to be embroidered. The logo says, “To Occupy Little Fingers.” Fulton recommended customers use the blocks in quilts or for hot pads for the kitchen.
Even into the late 1940s, some of the bag companies printed dolls or toys. Phil Fawn is one of my favorites. Phil reminds me more of a reindeer than a fawn. but perhaps that’s just because he is striped in Christmas colors. The Christmasy print that is to be used for a bow to be tied around his neck does nothing to destroy that illusion, either.
I know the bag companies, as well as the mills, sugar and flour companies, were using some great marketing techniques. However, it would have been just as easy for them to use dress prints as it was to print dolls, toys or quilts that could be stitched up for the little ones.
I’ve always found it heartwarming that they considered the children, especially when I think back on the economic hardships so many people suffered during the’30s and ’40s. The toy may have served as a gift for a child, but there’s no doubt that the bag was just as much a present for a parent.
It’s hard to look at the bags as a marketing tool. To me, they seem more like a blessing.
Edie McGinnis is an author and editor for Kansas City Star Quilts. She writes every Friday.