Catalog Number: 1992.006.02
This week’s artifact is a printed pink cotton dish towel that started life as a flour sack.
There are holes on the towel left behind from the original stitching that once held this towel together as a flour sack. It was donated to La Crosse County Historical Society in 1992 by the woman who repurposed it, Winifred Mattson.
Mattson was born in 1917, and along with this towel, she gave an account of her thoughts on life as a young woman during the Great Depression in this region.
This is Mattson’s story:
“Flour during the Depression (the 1930s) was sacked in muslin bags printed with colorful designs. Since most people in a small town were quite poor, having lost their savings in a bank failure, they collected these sacks to make clothes, towels or small tablecloths to cover the oil-cloth on the kitchen table. Everyone who stopped at the house was offered coffee and bread or a sweet if available; otherwise, a child was sent uptown to buy tiny powdered sugar covered doughnuts.
“Friends would get together to exchange sacks in order to match up designs. A sack was also a nice little thing to bring to the house. The pink towel was made into a towel by me after this period was over, and I have used it until now, 60 years later; they had to be strong when they were filled with 40 pounds of flour. The Depression was not an unhappy time for me — children looked at it as normal living. One learned to cope.”
While Mattson turned this flour sack into a towel, repurposed flour sacks were turned into various items including clothing, toys, quilts, curtains, pillowcases, undergarments and diapers. These flour sacks were made with cotton and tightly woven so that they would be able to hold anywhere from 40 to 100 pounds of flour.
Manufacturers quickly realized that customers were repurposing their sacks, so they began printing colorful designs to make them more appealing and encourage repeat purchases.
It is estimated that nearly 3.5 million women and children wore clothing made from flour sacks during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until the early 1940s.
In the 1950s, the colorfully printed cotton flour sacks were replaced by cheaper paper bags still used today.
After growing up in southern Minnesota, Mattson worked as a school librarian and French teacher in Trempealeau for 22 years.
She moved to La Crosse in 1961 and lived here until her death in 2002.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 3, 2018.