Thursday, April 21, 2022

Milestones in Textile History: Richard Peek Gets An Idea

Imaginary sack featuring Richard Kimbrough Peek (1892-1962),
 the man who thought up selling commodity sacks in pastel colors to
appeal to home-sewing housewives.

Depending on who is telling the story you get a different story but here's one tale about Richard Peek's idea:

This story tells us Peek saw cretonne chair covers 
(furniture-scale prints) in Wichita.

One should always be wary of advertising as history, but it IS a good story. Jean Libman Block (not Black as it says above) wrote a feature about Peek's idea for Coronet magazine in November, 1946. The story was syndicated to newspapers the same month. Block tells us the stroke of genius was "gaily printed sacks" but that is confusing if not an error. Peek's idea was dyed plain-colored sacks---not dress-print sacks.

The issue

Peek's idea (probably in 1936 rather than 1937) was that decorative feed sacks might be a profitable marketing innovation.
The Percy Kent Company had been making textile container bags for years.
They opened a Kansas City branch where Peek and his brothers were in charge,
eventually owning the Kansas City Percy Kent enterprise.

As head of a large container company Richard Peek likely was familiar with Gingham Girl novelty  sacks that had been sold for a decade or so.

 Gingham Girl flour packaged in fabric printed with a small check pattern.

It occurred to him that sacking dyed in the new pastel colors would be appealing. These new dyes were a 1930s innovation in themselves, pale colors that didn't wash out.

Peek's  Good Idea
One of the very popular new colors was this light blue-green called Nile Green at the time.

During the Great Depression in the mid-1930s the latest cotton technology was color-fast pastel solids. It took a few more years for the dyes and dyeing technology to develop to the point that allowed textile mills to print bright, colorfast figures on yardage---the "dress prints" we associate with "feedsack."

Many people who love feedsack prints and their related style of mid-century dress prints are sure the Peeks and Percy Kent were printing florals and small-scale figures in 1936 during the Great Depression. What's more: their grandmothers told them they had to wear underwear made of feedsacks because money was so scarce in the 1930s.

Satire ala Minnie Pearl....

And indeed those girls (and boys) probably did have to wear rather embarrassing undergarments but NOT recycled from dress-print sacks until after 1938. Frugal mothers for several generations had recycled white sacks (some home-dyed with packaged dyes.) After 1937 they might have used pastel commercially-dyed sacks.

Events took a technological turn about 1939.

1939 Altadena, California

The girls are wearing dresses they have made of dress-print sacking. Pretty impressive
for 7th graders.

From the Altadena Historical Society

When you study reliably dated information about recycling dress-print sacks
you find this fashion fad occurred after 1938, more a result of World War II
 fabric shortages than Depression poverty.

Earliest ad so far I've found for "Dres-Print Sax", Coshocton, Ohio, July 1939

September 1, 1939---WW2 commences

The U.S. did not enter the war until 1941 but support for Allies meant channeling fabric and textiles to overseas war efforts. The luxury of inexpensive, varied, fashionable prints became a memory in the 1940s.

More about Richard Peek's good idea:

A few of Gloria Nixon's collection of  Percy Kent bags.
There were supposedly 11 different colorways.

March, 1937 ad in the Kansas City Star

The pastel flour containers they called Tint-Sax were a profitable innovation at Percy Kent in Kansas City. In the ad above the Staley Mills are selling scraps from the bags as luncheon napkins.

Something home stitchers made too in recycling the solid pastels.

Embroidered cocktail napkins. 

Early ad for "flour sack, all colors" October, 1938, Kerrville, Texas.
Penney's was apparently selling clean, empty, colored, plain sacks.

Percy Kent's customer was not the housewife. It was the flour or feed mill like Staley. The bag manufacturer's target audience was commodity companies that used textile packaging---flour mills, sugar packagers, feed processors, fertilizer packers.

The "You" here is not the housewife but the flour mill owner.
Percy Kent advertised widely in mill trade periodicals; this ad with a striped
print sack from the 1940s or '50s.

Collection of the Johnson County (Kansas) Museum
Staley feed sacks in dress prints, probably manufactured by Percy Kent.

One of Percy Kent's biggest customers was Staley Milling Company of St. Louis and Kansas City. Staley packaged their many animal feeds in Percy Kent dress-print sacking.

Staley specialized in hog feed. Pig Mama was a brand name.
Marketing you might not have imagined: Pig trading cards from Staley.


  1. Now that is one thing I do not have in my collection - a pig trading card. I appreciate how you have helped to prove that these dress print sacks were not a product of the Depression. I have a few sacks from my childhood that I cannot bear to cut into, but for the most part, I use my sacks because they make happy quilts. I will keep a sharp eye out for a pig card!

  2. Love this. I have had many over the years. They make great and fun dish towels.

  3. I had no idea that the new dyes also required new printing technology that didn't even exist until late 1930s. Didn't the Depression last longer in rural ares that would have used more feed sacks than in urban areas? Maybe it's possible that there's a bit of truth in the thought.
    Especially if people made no distinction between not having enough due to economic depression vs. due to war efforts? What I mean is, does one care if it's due to not enough money in your pocket or due to rationing, that you can't buy extra sugar for a cake or fabric for a new dress? All you know is that you can't buy it. Sorry, I'm babbling thoughts and questions waiting for the coffee to kick in :-)

    I wonder if the "printed feeds sacks are from the depression" mindset will persist as long as the "quilts were used as Underground Railroad signals" has?

  4. I loved this post. We grew up on a ranch, and all of us wore underwear made of feed sacks. We were so excited to be the one to pick out our favorite prints from the flour sacks. I think most kids wore feed sack underwear. We were never embarassed about it. Thanks for the history. I sent this on to all my sisters.