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Jan 28

Thrift Style temporary exhibit begins Feb. 6 at Johnson County Museum

Posted on January 28, 2021 at 9:38 AM by Becky Burnside

The latest temporary exhibit at the Johnson County Museum explores the reuse of feed sacks to make clothing and other household objects and illuminates how the “upcycling” of these bags mutually benefitted twentieth-century consumers and businesses. 

Thrift Style is the name of this exhibit, which opens in the museum’s temporary exhibit room on Feb. 6 and will remain on display through May 1. This traveling exhibit is a program of ExhibitsUSA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance with The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission and The National Endowment for the Arts.

“The exhibit overall is about celebrating and exploring ingenuity in hard times,” said Curator of Interpretation Andrew Gustafson. “Clothing made from feed sacks was most common from the 1920s through the 1940s. At a time when much of the country remained rural and agricultural, feed sacks (for flour, sugar, chicken feed, etc.) were commonplace. Folks were making undergarments and curtains and towels out of plain feed sacks for years before companies started printing patterns on them specifically for re-use. Once that happened, in the depths of the Great Depression, there was an abundance of possibilities for empty feed sacks: dresses, shirts, skirts, curtains, upholstery, towels, pillowcases. For those who did not have access to designers and department stores or could not afford to purchase ready-made clothing, these printed sacks offered a way to connect to patterns and the ‘in’ style at the time.”

Gustafson noted that there is definitely also a “local angle” to this subject as it was the Staley Milling Company of Kansas City, Mo., which began offering the “Tint-sax” feed sacks in 1936 in 11 pastel shades in finer materials with different prints or patterns. Places like the Merriam Feed Store would have sold their products to the local community, and feed sack clothing was not uncommon in the county, which remained an agricultural community through the post-World War II era.

“In addition to the traveling exhibit, we have pulled some related objects from the Museum’s collection to give this exhibit a Johnson County-specific component, including a really beautiful dress made from feed sacks,” Gustafson said. “These pieces are the wearable, physical history of our parents and grandparents. I think a lot of people will connect to the history. “

This temporary exhibit will take place at the Johnson County Museum, located inside the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park. Exhibit admission is included with regular museum admission rates of $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children ages one to 18, and free for children under one. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and is closed on Sundays. 

The museum is also presenting a related History on Tap program called Thrift Style: Ingenuity in Hard Times, which will take place beginning at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 2, at the museum. While this is currently planned as an in-person program, it may switch to a virtual format. Kansas State University Historic Costume & Textile Museum Curator Marla Day will explore how we can use our past to improve our present through thrifting. The cost for this one-hour program is $8 for non-museum members or $6.40 for museum members, who must register by phone at (913) 831-3359 to claim their discount. For more information about this program or to register by phone, call (913) 831-3359. 

While Thrift Style may seem like the perfect follow-up to the Common Threads temporary exhibit which ended in late January and was all about quilts, it wasn’t really planned that way.
“The pandemic impacted our exhibit schedule and some exhibits were moved around to accommodate the necessary changes,” Gustafson said. “The quilt exhibit and this exhibit were not originally scheduled back-to-back, but I think they do complement each other well. They also both speak, in some ways, to our current era and current events.”

With forty-one works from patterns to garments, Thrift Style serves as an example of past ingenuity that can inform today’s efforts towards sustainability. This exhibition offers a snapshot of domestic life during a time when recycling was as critical as it is today.

“For a whole new generation, seeing that upcycling and adaptive reuse is not new will be interesting,” Gustafson said. “In the World War II era being thrifty was called ‘conserving;’ taking what you have and stretching it out to make it last and giving things new purposes. I think that these things are all related. Regardless of the reason, these concepts are not new.” 

If a future museum curator 100 years or so from now wanted to present a similar exhibit about repurposed materials in the early decades of the 21st century, the current curator thinks the material of choice would likely be plastics.

“People and companies are finding all types of uses for recycled plastics, from making materials and fibers for shoes and clothing, to insulation, to building materials,” Gustafson said. “It might take a little more technology to make the transformation from plastic water bottle into a new, useable thing than turning feed sacks into clothing did, but I think that is one modern example.”