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What an almost forgotten heirloom taught me about my Midwestern Swedish roots
Unfinished stories are all around us. What happens when we start pulling threads?
As I’ve been thinking about quilts and family history this winter, my curiosity has taken me deep down the rabbit hole into feedsack fabric, also known as chicken linen, a ubiquitous fabric of the 1930s and 1940s.
Here’s part 2 of this story about the almost forgotten family quilt. Read part one if you haven’t already!
In 1947, 750 million yards of cotton fabric went to produce bags for flour, sugar, every kind of bean, meal and animal feed you can imagine.
Many millions of those yards were decorated in bright, colorful, intricate and often expertly designed patterns. This so-called feedsack or feedbag cotton, or chicken linen, born in frugality, became an important source of materials, patterns and sewing inspiration for people across the county from the late 1920s to the 1960s, when clothing became cheaper to buy than to make.
Linzee Kull McCray compiled a wonderful book and visual guide to this motley slice of American history called “Feed Sacks: The Colorful History of a Frugal Fabric,” which came out in 2019.
It’s a little hard to believe that the hexagons in that old family quilt I finished are made with this feedsack fabric, but the more I thought about it, the more I was in awe of the women like my great-grandma who could transform this crude form of packaging into clothing and household goods.
Plain flour and feed sacks had long been used to make clothing, diapers, quilts and anything else a homemaker might need fabric for, but in the mid-1920s, feed mills started printing fabrics with eye-catching designs.
The patent — issued in 1924 — went to George P. Plant Milling Co. in St. Louis to print a Gingham Girl pattern on a feedsack. This is a common fact you’ll find in feedsack research, but one source pointed to Crescent Flour and Feed Company in Springfield, Mo., as the first to market their products in bright printed bags, presumably that weren’t gingham.
My Swedish ancestors, Esther and her mother Karolina, lived in Springfield from the late 1890s and into the Great Depression, which means they possibly had access to some of the first printed feedsack fabric in the country.
Are those first printed sacks in this quilt? It’s hard to say for sure. Fabric stashes tend to grow over time, so if Esther was sewing this quilt during the 1930s or early 1940s, which is my best guess at this point, she likely had thirty years’ worth of fabric in her collection.
I figured I’d better ask the closest person to the source: My 94-year-old great uncle.
Esther’s son, John, my 94-year-old Uncle Jack, lives in Arlington, Va., and didn’t know anything about chicken linen or when his mom might have made this quilt. But he did remember a quilt frame that used to live in his mother’s house on North National Street.
“We had two rooms on the back of the house, and my mother had this big quilt frame in one of them,” he said over the phone last week.
He’s lived longer than anyone else in the family tree, he’ll tell you, and he can still recall some memories of our immigrant ancestors.
“My grandmother lived to be 77, and I don’t remember much about her, but I remember that she was a nice grandmother.”
Jack remembers that Karolina — or Lena as she was known then — had a bunch of Swedish friends who came over to work on the quilts on the frame in the back room.
After his grandmother died, Jack says his mom continued to host the Svenska (Swedish) club in her house, serving them the storied coffee cake I wrote about last month.
I’ve written before about this, but the frugality mentality of the Great Depression is one of my family’s inherited values. Sewing can skip a generation, but scrimping, scraping and saving certainly didn’t.
Before I started on this quilt project, I knew very little about Esther. I was so sure that her mom made this quilt that I embroidered Karolina’s initials on the back alongside mine.
But digging into the history of feedsack fabric in order to try to date the quilt led me to a treasure trove of information about life for a Swedish immigrant in Southwest Missouri in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
I learned that the first Swedish settlement in the area is located in Verona, less than five miles from where I grew up in Aurora.
It’s entirely possible that Karolina’s husband, Gustaf, came first to Verona instead of Springfield, but there’s where he eventually was living when he sent for his wife and their two kids. (This was 10 years after he first arrived. They had four more children, including Esther, after Karolina arrived.)
At that time — the late 1890s — a “Little Sweden” had popped up near what is now Grant Avenue Baptist Church with about 60 immigrant families living just a few blocks from the railroad that the growing city depended on.
By 1911, there were about 400 Scandinavians in Springfield, according to some poking around in the archives of the Springfield News-Leader, but by the late 1930s, Scandinavian heritage was starting to take a back seat.
"But today, for the most part, the immigrants are long since assimilated into the general community life and make no organized effort to maintain their original national identity," read an article in the News-Leader on Sept 11, 1938.
That’s the story we read. That as our generations pass, we lose our “original national identity.” That we lose track of details like who made that quilt in the attic or where in the blazes they would have gotten all those different fabrics.
But I think that’s only part of the story.
It’s natural that people leave behind parts of themselves or their heritage as they live their own lives, defined by the way that they want to live, not how their parents want them to live.
But I also think it’s natural that subsequent generations start pulling on whatever threads they can find.
I just so happened to have a quilt.
I know that bringing ancestry and genealogy alive through physical objects is an absolute form of privilege. I know how special it is that my grandmother and, now, my mother have kept track of this trunk with these treasures. I know how annoying it is to my kids that I keep some of their baby stuff in boxes right next to mine that contain some of the same objects.
Thanks to DNA tests and internet archives, we have more threads we can pull than ever before, even in adoptive families. We can look for little clues uncovered while cleaning out closets after grandma dies. Hidden messages encoded into the stories repeated by our elders.
Treasures we dig up ourselves after years of not knowing.
In his book, “The American Quilt,” Roderick Kiracofe writes about the feedsack era: “Our ancestors demanded tremendous variety and complex patterning in their clothing and home-furnishing textiles — and their quest for new and wonderful fabrics fueled the industry.”
Our desire for these stories fuels another kind of quest.
My quilt quest uncovered so many new bits and pieces that have helped bring that part of American history to life, and parts of myself to life.
But I still don’t know who made the quilt. Knowing that printed chicken linen was in circulation in the late 1920s means Karolina might have worked on it. Or maybe they worked on it together.
Maybe I’ll never know, but I’m glad I asked.