Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

A Historian’s Adventures in Entomology (aka “Other Duties as Assigned”)

I like to consider myself a historian specializing in textiles. I am in my element when I can talk to visitors about quilts or catalog a lovely dress. As curator of collections management here at the State Museum, I can also hold my own when it comes to talking about a variety of subjects from furniture to guns. Bugs are a whole different matter, however. While I have a background in science, the only thing I know about insects are which ones are dangerous to museum collections and the phone number for our pest control professional who can take care of them.

When we were offered and accepted a cabinet containing a collection of butterflies and moths, I was mildly concerned about cataloging them, but the opportunity to get a butterfly collection that represents the upper Midwest was too important to let those concerns get in the way. In the summer of 2021, I was able to find the perfect intern, a museum studies student with an interest in entomology. Mary Johnson, a graduate student at the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta, had exactly the background we needed to get the collection cataloged. Unfortunately, we could only fund the internship for 2 1/2 months, and there were well over 1,000 insects to identify and catalog! It was impossible for her to catalog the whole collection. (You can read about her project and others in this blog written by our interns last summer.) This meant someone would have to catalog the rest. But who? (Insert the sound of crickets chirping here. And no, they are not from the collection drawers!) As fate would have it, it fell on me—a history person, a textile person, and a quilter—to identify and catalog drawers full of butterflies and moths.

While butterflies are beautiful, they are way out of my sphere of knowledge. The butterflies I am used to working with look more like these and are embroidered with thread and yarn.

Close-up of quilts from the State Museum collection. SHSND 17662, 1981.93.1

Still, I had a couple of things going for me. First, collectors house like specimens together so a drawer might be one genus and the various species in that genus will be lined up together. Even so, when faced with a drawer like the one below, it can be a bit daunting for someone without an entomology background.

SHSND 2021.10.434-.467

My second help was that Mary made a guide for each drawer. She photographed the drawer and labeled or at least narrowed down the possibilities of which species the various groups of butterflies belonged to.

Lastly, some but not all of the specimens were identified by the collector. Some but not all also had collection locations identified, which helped when a species is found in a specific area.

Here is an example of a butterfly with full identifying information, including where and when it was found, its species, and who found it. SHSND 2021.10.461

But many specimens had little or no information.

Sorry, folks, but the “From Clyde” tag doesn’t help me much. SHSND 2021.10.455

When I was lucky and a butterfly’s species was noted on a tag, I could safely assume the butterflies in the same column were also of that species. When identifications didn’t agree, I felt I needed to verify the species. I also knew that as research has evolved, species names have changed; animals once thought to be different species might now be combined in the same species, or animals thought to be the same species might be separated due to what my untrained eye sees as a minor variation. With many of these specimens collected and identified nearly 50 years ago, changes were a possibility.

But how was I going to verify the identification? I did what anybody else would do—I turned to the internet. In the past, internet searches have helped me with everything from how to tie a necktie to how to wear a Bohemian folk costume to the names for various parts of a saddle, and I was hoping it wouldn’t let me down when it came to identifying butterflies. I found many websites. Some were scientifically written and over my head; others were geared toward kids and way too simple. A few were written for folks like me using plain English with enough detail to help me identify different species. Even with the collector’s notes, Mary’s notes, and help from websites, trying to decide if a specimen was an eastern tiger swallowtail, a Canadian tiger swallowtail, or a western tiger swallowtail wasn’t easy.

“Other duties as assigned” is a broad category I never would I have thought would include butterfly identification. But the task turned out to be an interesting adventure for this historian and has given me a better appreciation for the work of all scientists.

The Linda Slaughter Painting and the Meaning of Conservation, Preservation, Restoration, and Repairs

As curator of collections management, I get asked from time to time if we ever restore artifacts at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The easy answer to that is no. But then the visitor will point out the recent work carried out on the Linda Slaughter painting. This is when we have a little conversation about what we mean by conservation, preservation, restoration, and repairs.

A painted portrait of a woman with long, dark curls in her hair, an orange choker necklace with pearls forming a circle in the middle, a longer pearl nexklace, and an off the hsoulder dress or blouse with lacy fringe and a blue bow in the middle at chest level. The painting is framed in a light colored wood.

Portrait of Linda Slaughter before conservation. SHSND 2920

On the surface, conservation, preservation, restoration, and repairs all seem to imply the same thing, but in the museum world each is very different. Repairs mean fixing something that is broken or torn. For instance, if someone glues a vase back together or sews up a hole in a garment, they are repairing it.

Restoration is the process of taking an object back to a nearly new condition. Think about the person in the garage restoring a 1964 Mustang to how it looked coming off the factory floor. They usually have no issues repainting the body or getting the necessary new parts. This is why we don’t restore artifacts at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Restoration erases the artifact’s signs of use. How an item was used is part of an object’s history, and we don’t want to destroy the history.

Preservation is preventing damage and reducing the rate of deterioration that all artifacts experience. This is what we strive for here at the State Museum and is in line with best practices at most other museums.

Finally, conservation aims to improve the condition of an artifact by stabilizing its physical problems and addressing surface disfigurement caused by deterioration and/or damage. Conservators strive to retain as much of the original materials as possible, but their work should always be reversable and not cause damage to the object in the long run. Conservators are highly trained individuals with advanced degrees, which include knowledge of art history, chemistry, and other sciences. They are also usually talented artists.

Occasionally, I will repair an object—this usually involves sewing a button that has fallen off a garment back on so it can be exhibited. Even then, the repair is documented with before-and-after photographs as well as a report of what was done, including all materials used. But most of the time what I do is preservation. I make sure that the artifacts’ environment is correct, that the lights are not too bright to cause fading, that there are no bugs or vermin to damage the artifacts, and that any materials we use around the artifacts are acid free, inert, or archivally safe.

Every so often, we will have a damaged artifact that requires the services of a trained conservator. The painting of Linda Slaughter—pioneer educator, author, and activist—is an example of such an item. In preparation for the 150th anniversary of Bismarck’s founding later this spring, we began thinking about what artifacts could be used to mark the occasion. We all know the significant role Slaughter played in the early years of Bismarck and North Dakota and thought her painting would be an excellent way to explore these important contributions. (For an excellent intro to Slaughter’s fascinating life and achievements, see this earlier blog post by Manuscript Archivist Emily Kubischta.)

But we had a problem. There was a large tear in the neck of the portrait, which had been badly repaired in the past. Also, the varnish had yellowed with age, and we would later find out there was other damage. I am not a trained conservator, and this kind of damage is well beyond anything I would attempt.

A close-up of the neck portion of a portrait painting showing a tear in the canvas.

Close-up of damage to neck.

The back of a framed painting showing a ton of dirt on the canvas

Previous repair to the tear in the neck included gluing a piece of fabric to the back to stabilize the edges. Courtesy MACC

In August 2018 we took the painting to the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) in Minneapolis for an evaluation and cost estimate for the conservation.

Once the process began, Alexa Beller, a painting conservator at MACC, wrote to say, “I have consolidated the tears, punctures, and areas of loss with a stable adhesive to prevent additional loss of paint. I then cleaned the verso [back] of the canvas with a dry brush, vacuum, and soot sponges. There was a bulge running across the lower edge of the canvas caused by lots of dirt and debris trapped between the canvas and stretcher.”

The back of a framed painting showing a bunch of dirt on the canvas with dirty sponges sitting below

Back of painting with the dirty sponges used to clean it. Courtesy MACC

In her email Beller also noted, “After lots of testing, I then began to clean the recto [front] of the painting with a pH adjusted aqueous [water] solution to remove the accumulated grime. I reduced the discolored natural resin varnish with a solvent mixture after additional testing. This solution also reduced some spots of discolored overpaint across the surface. There was additional grime and dirt trapped underneath the old varnish, so I made a second pass with the same aqueous solution. ... Reduction of the varnish revealed clearer tonality and more details in the figure’s hair and face.”

A painted portrait of a woman with long, dark curls in her hair, an orange choker necklace with pearls forming a circle in the middle, a longer pearl nexklace, and an off the hsoulder dress or blouse with lacy fringe and a blue bow in the middle at chest level. The left half of the painting shows it as it was before being cleaned, and the right half shows it after being cleaned. It is much brighter after being cleaned.

Slaughter portrait showing the right half of the canvas after cleaning. Courtesy MACC

Beller also told us in her email: “After cleaning I began to remove the three patches on the verso and their adhesive residues with a scalpel. ... I then locally humidified these areas to relax the tears and punctures into alignment in preparation for mending tears and canvas inserts for the punctures.”

Beller put in weeks of work just on testing, observing, planning, and cleaning the painting. It then took months more to finish the work, as she needed to repair the tears and holes, apply a new varnish, and fill in the areas of paint loss. It is a slow process to let materials dry, settle, and cure.

Part of the process involved applying a new stable and non-yellowing synthetic resin varnish to the surface. Beller explained, “This allowed me to really see all the fully saturated colors and tones to begin filling the losses with a pigmented wax mixture and inpainting abrasions and losses with a conservation-grade synthetic resin medium. The inpainting materials we use are always selected to remain colorfast and fully reversible in solvents that will not adversely affect the original paint if my work ever needs to be removed.”

A woman with long, dark hair bulled back in a low ponytail wearing a dark blue shirt with a white shirt under it is touching up a painting of woman's portrait.

Conservator Alexa Beller works on inpainting areas of paint loss. Courtesy MACC

During the last stages of the conservation, Beller noticed some odd lines in the composition that seemed to be compositional changes. She wrote: “Sometimes this happens when an artist changes their sketch in the early stages of painting and continues on top of the older version. … With the grime and old varnish removed, the changes in this composition became slightly more visible to the naked eye.” Using an infrared camera that can detect underdrawings, Beller identified several changes to Slaughter’s necklace.

A grayscale infrared image of a painting of a woman shows pencil sketches where the artist orignially was going to place the necklaces the woman is wearing.

Infrared image showing the artist’s changes. Courtesy MACC

Our early records of the painting indicate that it arrived in the collection with a gilt frame. At some point the canvas was removed from the frame, and that frame was lost. While the current frame was nice, it wasn’t in a style typical of the late 1880s, and we decided that the portrait needed a new frame. We contacted Minneapolis-area framers for ideas and ultimately selected Andrew Webster of Master Framers to carry out the work. Webster and his team built a custom 1880s-style gilt-and-wood frame, which features current conservation techniques such as a lining on the inside of the frame to prevent future damage to the portrait. And since the frame was built specifically for this painting it provides a perfect and secure fit.

Before and after pictures of a painting of a woman. The left painting is darker and more dull witha  light wood frame. The right painting is brighter and has a very dark frame lined with a gold color around the painting.

The painting before (left) and after conservation.

The Slaughter painting is now ready for the State Historical Society to use in upcoming exhibits. And with proper handling and environmental conditions, the painting should continue to look great for a hundred years or more.

Fragments of History

Within the State Historical Society of North Dakota collections, we have lots of fragments. The archaeologists have fragments of stone that come from the manufacturing of tools. These flakes help them understand how the tools were made and used on the site where they were found Paleontologists have fragments of bones that help them better understand prehistoric life and the environment the animals lived in. But are fragments of buildings, ships, or other historic artifacts the best way to understand the times and the people who used or built them? Yes and no.

In the museum collections, we have rust scales, a splinter of wood, and a metal plaque that have a connected history.

A memorial plaque for the U.S.S. Maine. There is an image of a person holding a shield. To the left side of the plaque are a few small pieces.

How are these objects connected?

Let’s take a closer look at these fragments of history to see what they can tell us about a time in our past. The rust scales are believed to be from the mast of the battleship USS Maine, the splinter of wood is said to be from the Spanish cruiser Reina Cristina, and the plaque is a memorial made of metal from the hull of the USS Maine.

To understand the connection these three pieces have, we will have to go back to the late 1890s when the United States was not the global power it is today. There were no new lands our country could claim, and we were looking to acquire more territory. The only option was to get the lands from a global power, one way or another. At that time, Cuba was controlled by the militarily weak Spain. Under the guise of helping the Cuban people revolt against the Spanish, the United States sailed the USS Maine into Havana Harbor in January 1898. On Feb. 15, there was an explosion that ripped a hole through the hull of the Maine, sinking the ship and killing 260 sailors. Of course, the Spanish were assumed to be responsible despite the lack of evidence. President McKinley tried to reach a compromise with the Spanish government, but publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer whipped up American sentiment against the Spanish with slogans like “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!” By April 21, McKinley succumbed to a variety of pressures from the press, the public, and politicians and signed a joint congressional resolution that authorized him to use force to supposedly help Cuba gain independence. Shortly thereafter war was declared, and we were now fighting the Spanish-American war.

A few years earlier, in 1896, Theodore Roosevelt, then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, got his friend Commander George Dewey the post of Commander of the Asiatic Squadron. Shortly after the start of the Spanish-American War, Dewey was charged with either capturing or destroying the Spanish Pacific fleet that was near the Spanish-controlled Philippines. Dewey entered Manilla Bay on the night of April 30. The following morning, they began the attack. It took them six hours to defeat the Spanish Pacific Squadron. One of the ships sunk that day was Spanish Admiral Patricio Montojo’s flagship, the Reina Cristina.

By Aug. 13, 1898, Spain surrendered, and Cuba was a protectorate of the United States, which now also had control of Guam and Puerto Rico. By 1902, the U.S. also had control over the Philippine Islands after fighting and defeating the Filipino people. Our country had become a global power with territories in the Caribbean and in the Pacific.

In 1912 the United States raised the USS Maine, which was partially submerged in Havana Harbor. The mast was relocated to Arlington National Cemetery as a memorial to the USS Maine. Lt. C.L. Hansen, U.S. Navy, was a cadet at Annapolis and obtained these rust scales from the mast. He sent them to his father, Mr. C.L. Hansen of Bismarck, who presented them to the State Historical Society in 1921.

Rust scales from the mast of the U.S.S. Maine

Rust scales from the mast of the USS Maine. SHSND 2075

Pieces of the hull of the USS Maine were salvaged and recast into over 1,000 memorial plaques in 1913. Each plaque is numbered; ours is 351. According to our files, it was given to a relative of a man who died aboard the Maine. We don’t know the name of the sailor or the relative who received the plaque. It went through many hands—some unnamed, others named—before coming to Sister Quintin at the St. Joseph School in Mandan, who donated it to the State Historical Society in 1945.

Memorial plaque made from metal salvaged from the U.S.S. Maine

Memorial plaque made from metal salvaged from the USS Maine. SHSND 10116

As mentioned, the Spanish Admiral Montojo’s flagship, the Reina Cristina, was sunk in Manilla Bay by Dewey’s forces. Unfortunately, we don’t know who or under what circumstances the splinter of wood was collected, but in that kind of a battle, we must wonder how they knew that this piece of wood was even from the Reina Cristina. It reminds me of the multitude of pieces of the true cross that are in churches throughout the world.

Splinter of wood from teh Spanish ship Reina Cristina

Splinter of wood from the Spanish ship Reina Cristina. SHSND 4434

Even knowing the history behind these “fragments of history,” one must wonder if it is the meaning that we imbibe into the artifact that is more important than the object itself.

These seemingly inconsequential “fragments of history” are related to an interesting time in our history. But are they meaningful artifacts on their own? The rust scales and splinter of wood came into our collection when most people still did remember the Maine, and it was a much different time in our collecting strategy. With the uncertain provenance of the wood and the fragmentary nature of the rust scales, it is unlikely that we would accept either if they were offered to us today. While we don’t have a full history of who was the original recipient of the plaque, it tells a complete story by itself, and we would probably accept it now if it were offered. While searches for records of which serial number went where have proven to be in vain, we can only hope that one day we will find that elusive piece of the puzzle. So yes, fragments of historic objects can help us understand the times and people who used and built them by showing us what others thought were important artifacts of history. I have to think: What items have we collected in the past 20 years that will cause people a hundred years in the future to scratch their heads and wonder why we accepted them into the collection?

A 1930s Timeless Black Dress Still Stuns Today

Every woman seems to search for that timeless black dress that looks fabulous and helps them feel fabulous, that they can wear for years and will never go out of style. Fortunately for Donna Weinrebe of Minot, she had no problem finding that elusive dress. In 1936, when Donna was a student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, she wore this lovely gown to a college dance. While it was the height of fashion in 1936, this dress is still fashionable today.

Two side by side images of a black felvet dress. The first image has a matching short sleeved coat over the top of it. It is a full-length, sleeveless dress that is somewhat form fitting with a matching belt around the waist.

Worn to a University of North Dakota dance, this timeless black velvet gown was donated to the museum collection by Donna Weinrebe in1990. SHSND 1990.253.7

This dress was made for drama. The floor-length, Grecian-inspired gown was created from a luscious black velvet fabric that one of my co-workers described as a “black hole of gorgeousness.” It is sleeveless with a scoop neck and a peekaboo slit down the back. Blousy and loose at the top, the dress is fitted at the waist and hips. A matching belt helps to accentuate the narrow waist. To not distract from the dress, the belt buckle and button at the back are covered in the same velvet fabric.

The back of a black velvet dress. It shows an opening going down the middle of it to just above the waist.

The matching bolero jacket is the one piece that dates the outfit. In the 1930s, puffed sleeves on dresses were in fashion to exaggerate the shoulder and make the waist appear smaller. These puffed sleeves were made with five rows of corded pleats to provide more volume.

A black velvet jacket that clips together at the neck with short sleeves that are puffed.

Although not on exhibit in our upcoming fashion exhibit, Donna also wore this gorgeous coat made of the same black velvet and lined in white silk with the dress. The stylish, loose hood would help to keep the wearer warm and her hair in place on cold North Dakota nights. There is only one button at the neckline of the coat. The coat is held closed by ties and an interior loop at the waist.

A full length, hooded, long sleeved black velvet coat. There is a button at the neckline and ties around the waist.

Matching coat. SHSND 1990.253.276

The women of the Weinrebe family were quite fashionable in their day, and this dress is no exception. Few clothing pieces stand the test of time, but by leaving the bolero jacket off, a woman could still attend an elegant event wearing this dress today. No one would know her fashion dates from the 1930s. What classic pieces are in your closet?

The black velvet fabric that makes this dress so lovely also makes it nearly impossible to photograph and capture the details. It is a dress you need to see in person to really appreciate. So, visit Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style when it opens soon to see this timeless dress!

Three older women in dresses stand holding an award. They each wear a white corsage on their left side.

The Weinrebe women of Minot displayed an elegant sense of fashion. Here Ethel is receiving the Minot Sertoma Club’s Service to Mankind award in 1974 with daughters Nita (left) and Donna (right). SHSND 10560.0002.00

A mother and two daughters pose for a picture. The mother wears a darc colored dress with white lace around the neck and cuffs and a white belt around the waist. The youngest child wears a  white puffy dress. The other child wears a dark colored dress with three white lines around the collar and wrists. She also wears a large bow in her hair.

The Weinrebe women were stylish at an early age. Daughters Nita and Donna pose for a portrait with their mother, Ethel, circa 1920. SHSND 10560.0002.00026

6 men sit and stand together while another man stands across from them looking down at something in his hands. The men wear sack suits featuring a boxy cut with a higher neck line and shorter lapels. They are all also wearing hats.

Julius Weinrebe, Donna’s father (seated), and his friends were also sporting national trends in men’s fashion. Notice their sack suits featuring a boxy cut with a higher neck and shorter lapels. Julius’s bowler hat was also the style choice of the day. Circa 1907. SHSND 10560.0002.00016

The Horse Exhibit Artifacts: Where are They Now?

We recently took down The Horse in North Dakota exhibit. Some colleagues and I have written about how we produce an exhibit (Part 1 and Part 2), getting the horse-drawn fire wagon into the building, trying to find artifacts for display, research about artifacts, and how we clean those artifacts. These blogs brought to your attention just a few of the artifacts we used in The Horse exhibit.

I thought I would share with you what happens to these pieces now that they are off exhibit.

For most artifacts, we check the condition report completed on the artifact prior to the exhibit. The condition report includes a description of the artifact describing all damage such as chips, dings, scraped paint, frayed edges, tears, fading of colors, insect activity, or whether something like a button on a garment is missing. When we see no changes to the item’s condition after being on exhibit, the object goes back to its storage location. We note that movement in the database and then move on to the next item. But for a few artifacts, it is not so easy.

The horse-drawn fire wagon was probably the most complicated piece to move. Bryan Turnbow, in his Jan. 27, 2020, blog, talked about how we had to use a forklift and our platform loading dock lift to get our fire wagon into the building. We, of course, had to reverse the process to get it out of the museum. It is a bit nerve racking to see such an important artifact suspended over the edge of the platform lift being held only by the tines of the forklift. Both lifts were slowly lowered with staff members standing by as spotters to make sure nothing went wrong.

loading fire truck into the building

Fire wagon being lowered with platform lift and forklift (1988.178.11)

I would love to say we have a wonderful enclosed trailer to safely transport the wagon to our off-site storage, but we don’t. Instead, we needed to wait for a nice day and use an open trailer. This also created moments of trepidation. An open trailer leaves the object open to many possible problems from a passing bird, to road debris kicked up from other vehicles, to the wind pulling on parts, or our worst nightmare, its falling off the trailer. All parts of the wagon were double-checked to make sure everything was secure. The tie downs were checked and double-checked to make certain they all were secure, and off they went . . . slowly. Bryan Turnbow said he “drove like I was driving Grandma around: drove slower, braked sooner and gradually, and took the smoothest roads.”

first truck on trailer

Fire wagon on trailer

hauling fire truck

Fire wagon going down the road

Fire truck in storage

Fire wagon in its new home

With the skills and planning of our Audience Engagement & Museum team and just a little luck, the fire wagon reached the off-site storage, a 5.5-mile trip, safely. It now sits in preparation for the next exhibit or research opportunity.

When we checked the condition report on a few objects, the condition of some items had changed. Melissa Thompson, in her Aug. 6, 2018, blog titled “Primping and Prepping Artifacts for Exhibit,” showed how she cleaned artifacts that had green corrosion product and spue (fatty acid blooms). Most of these items that had been cleaned beforehand were great when we pulled them off exhibit, but a few were not. Stock saddle 2007.89.1 was found with a fresh outbreak of spue. According to our records, a condition report was done on the saddle in March 2008 when the item was initially brought into the collection, and spue was removed at that time. In preparation for the exhibit, another condition report was done July 2018, and it was cleaned again. When we took it off exhibit a couple of weeks ago, I noticed more white spue and had to clean it for a third time before I put it back into storage. These condition reports indicate that the item seems to have frequent fatty acid blooms, so now I have this item flagged so I can check it at least yearly to see if more spue shows up and clean it if necessary. While the spue is not damaging, it is unsightly and could attract and hold on to dirt that could be damaging. Cleaning it regularly is important for long-term preservation.

saddle

Stock saddle after second cleaning (2007.89.1)

riding habit

Medora's riding habit (1972.383.1-.2)

kids cowboy shirt

Child’s cowboy shirt (2011.30.66)

colorful Metis sash

Métis sash (1986.234.62) on capote (5301)

For a few items the condition reports were fine, and putting them away would not have been a problem; BUT we didn’t need to put them back into storage. They were going back on exhibit in the upcoming exhibit Fashion and Function: North Dakota Style. Visitors to The Horse in North Dakota exhibit will recognize Medora’s riding habit, the child’s cowboy shirt, spurs, leather cuffs and a few more. We see these as a bonus since we won’t have to put them away, nor do we have to put them on a mannequin. Of course, we did double-check the condition report to make sure that things were still good. We did change how the Métis sash is going to be displayed—we put it onto a capote (5301) to complete the look.

Artifacts going on exhibit go through many steps to ensure they can be safely displayed. When they come off exhibit, they go through more to make sure they were exhibited safely. There are many behind-the-scenes steps that happen for each artifact for every exhibit. When you see the new exhibit Fashion and Function: North Dakota Style (opening in January 2021), you will have a better understanding of how we have planned, primped, moved, and built another exciting exhibit for you to enjoy.

Fabulous Flour and Feed Sacks

In preparing for our upcoming Fashion and Function exhibit at the State Museum, I was reminded of some interesting objects in our museum collection. They appear to be run-of-the-mill objects: a quilt, and a couple of dresses, pillowcases, Native American leggings, and a homemade sheet. These everyday objects have a very interesting connection—they are all made from flour or feeds sacks. People tend to say any items made with the small cotton prints in colors typical of the 1930s are made with flour sacks, but I find very few items that really are made from these. People also seem to forget that women went to stores and bought yardage, sometimes in the same design and colors used in the sacks. There are two ways that I know of proving that an item is made of flour or feed sacks. Firstly, are they printed with a label? A home-made sheet displays this well.

flour sack material

SHSND 1975.23.245

Leggings made by Anne Good Eagle, Lakota, sometime in the 1920s, show traditional materials of leather and dyed porcupine quills on the lower half —the part that was visible below a dress. On the upper part that is hidden by the dress, she used flour sacks from Rex Flour.

lakota leggings from 1920s

Front and back of leggings. SHSND 1986.234.222v

While having a flour sack logo where no one could see it was fine, women would try to bleach away the printing when the fabric would be more visible to others, usually with mixed results. A Dresden Plate quilt, made by Anna Johnson of Coteau sometime between 1925 and 1934, used flour sacks for the white background. If you look carefully around the plates, you can see the black printing of the Russell-Miller Inc., North Dakota Milling Company, Occident Flour logo.

lavender quilt with a close up

Dresden Plate Quilt and close-up of flour sack printing. SHSND 1981.1.5

As we can see on the quilt, bleaching didn’t always work. Of course, women complained about the ink not coming out, so the mills started to use paper labels. Those could be soaked off, leaving a nice piece of fabric.

Dakota maid feed sack with paper label

Dakota Maid Feed sack with paper label, SHSND 1982.197.11

From the 1920s to 1950s many flour and feed mills, including the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, used pretty printed cloth for the sacks to encourage reuse.

Women in an evening dress made from feed sacks

Woman wearing an evening dress made from feed sacks standing in front of a Dakota Maid promotional display. SHSND SA 2019-P-134-00046

With the printed labels gone, I rely on the second way of identifying flour sacks. I look for the stitch holes in the fabric. Sacks were sewn together with a large needle using string for thread. When the sack was taken apart, a series of small holes were left behind from where the needle broke threads in the fabric. Note the row of small holes along the edges of this pillowcase.

pink pillowcase w close up

A pillowcase and close-up of sack stitch holes. SHSND 1976.00160.00093A

A pillowcase is the obvious item to make from a sack, and some sacks were made with a pretty border across the top for just that purpose. Looking carefully at the dress image above, you can see the same print used for the pillowcase. Other sacks having an overall design were more like yardage, perfect for creating clothing items. Wives would send their husbands to the feed store with strict orders to get bags all with the same design and color. Dresses could require five or more bags. Occasionally patterns would even indicate not only yardage but how many bags it would take to make the dress. A dress made by Carol Eklund in the 1950s as a 4-H project was said to be made from feed sacks given to her by a neighbor. Carol was diligent to avoid or hide most of the holes, but near the hem at the back a tell-tale row of holes is visible, confirming the story.

yellow flour sack dress w close up

Dress made from flour sacks and close-up showing the holes. SHSND 2018.72.5

Many items might be legitimately made from sacks, yet we can never know for sure because the maker managed to bleach out the printing, or hide the holes, or used such small pieces they avoided the holes all together. Also, most of the items made from feed sacks were utilitarian. The items were used until they were no longer usable, so they were rarely passed down in families. Even so, we can’t discount our grandparents’ stories about using feed sacks for all kinds of things from dish towels to shirts and dresses. I have had more than one person who grew up in the 1930s tell me about having underwear with “Russell-Miller” across their bottoms. Unfortunately, we don’t have any in the collections for me to share with you. A few of these stories might be like the stories they told us of walking to school uphill both ways through 6-foot-high snow drifts. You’ll be able to view some of the pieces referenced in this blog in our Fashion & Function exhibit opening in 2021.