Three Questions with Linzee Kull McCray
Three Questions is an initiative to share the value that our faculty, students, and others in the UNT community derive from using Unique Collections at UNT Libraries.
How important are Unique Collections your teaching, learning or research?
In 2016, I was working on a book about cotton commodity bags, better known as feed sacks. (The bags, which originally were white or had a company logo on them, were sewn from dress print fabrics beginning in the late 1930s through the early 1960s. They held everything from animal feed and agricultural seed to flour, sugar, and salt and were sometimes the sole source of fabric for rural families. Women used them to create curtains, diapers, dishtowels, dresses, quilts, and much more.) The Portal enabled me to search by subject and gave me a window into rural life in Texas—the number of small-town newspapers was astonishing, as was the news they covered. Feed sacks featured prominently in the “women’s sections” of papers and sometimes showed up on the front page, alongside more traditional news items. Having access to these newspapers gave me a detailed glimpse into the lives of rural and small town residents and allowed me to share stories like this with readers: “Alongside articles on wildcat wells and factory inspections, the front page of the March 21, 1935 Corrigan Press from Texas included the story ‘Mrs. Peebles Makes Mattress Cover.’ A member of the Lime Ridge Home Demonstration Club, Mrs. R.S. Peebles washed, bleached, and pressed eight feed sacks to make a mattress cover, ‘which can be removed and washed at any time.’ …Mrs. Peebles frugality was applauded. ‘Since buttons from discarded garments were used to fasten it at one end, the only cost of the well made substantial cover was the thread used in making it.’” Mrs. Peebles efforts inspired other women, who began saving fertilizer sacks to make similar items.
How have Unique Collections changed the way you approach your research, teaching or learning?
Because feed sacks were used all over the United States, I was especially pleased to have access to newspapers from a region other than where I live—I live in Iowa City, Iowa. It reminded me of the possibilities of broadening the scope of my study to additional regions and states where similar resources might be available. And I love sharing the Portal with people who are interested in digging further into the topic, or who are simply interested in day-to-day rural life in the early and mid 20th-century.
What do you want others to know about your research, teaching or learning?
Textiles and their use in rural life is a way to focus on women’s history. While some men certainly sewed, the majority of feed sack use in the home was by women. Feed sacks interest me from a number of perspectives:
- The fabric designs are rich and varied (more than 18,000 different fabrics have been documented, and there are many, many more.
- I love that women took the time to use feed sacks to create beauty, especially when they were already occupied with cooking, gardening, and raising children and chickens, among other tasks.
- Feed sacks represent recognition by manufacturers of women’s importance in deciding where and how their family’s precious financial resources would be spent. There are myriad stories of husbands and sons being sent to the feed store with a swatch of fabric in hand and the instructions to buy two more sacks of fabric just like it. (It took three to four bags to create the average woman’s dress). Women may not have been considered breadwinners, but cotton bag manufacturers’ marketing efforts were squarely directed at the housewife and not her husband. The power of women was clear, even if it wasn’t directly acknowledged.
In addition, I used the substantial resources of the Briscoe Center for American History while visiting Austin in January, 2016. I hope that Texans appreciate the amazing collections at their disposal, as well as the knowledgeable staff members who help the pubic make use of them.
Linzee Kull McCray is a writer and independent curator with a focus on art, textiles, and craft. She is the author of Feed Sacks: The Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric (UPPERCASE, Calgary, Canada, 2016). She was a writer and editor of publications for the University of Iowa, has a master’s degree in journalism from the University, and taught magazine writing and reporting to UI journalism students. Her writing appears regularly in magazines and online. Her book Art Quilts of the Midwest (University of Iowa Press, 2015) has been the subject of exhibitions at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum (Lincoln, NE), the National Quilt Museum (Paducah, KY), and the Iowa Quilt Museum (Winterset, IA). It will be on view at the Texas Quilt Museum (LaGrange, TX) from June 29 to October 1, 2017.