The Old Bag Lady

Illinois collector gets a reputation as the Old Bag Lady thanks to impressive collection

Helen Scott and one of the smaller bags in her collection. This bag has not been embroidered.

Helen Scott and one of the smaller bags in her collection. This bag has not been embroidered.

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Before our throw-away society evolved, numerous farm products came packaged in fabric sacks. Many a Depression-era child wore a garment made from an old feed bag. Old bag manufacturers sometimes intentionally selected print fabrics that could be converted into a tablecloth, dress or apron. 

In 1977, Helen Scott of Galva, Ill., started collecting old bags: feed sacks, flour bags, sugar bags, and other fabric sacks. Her favorites originated near her home, but she has bags from all over the country. Today, her collection includes about 200 bags that once held potatoes, walnuts, cottonseed, chick feed, seed corn, and many other products. If possible, she saves a bag in its original condition and obtains an identical bag to embroider.

An avid collector, Helen loves to attend auctions and yard sales. She bought her first old bag, a Doughboy rolled oats bag, tucked in with some junk at an auction.

"I hate to have dirty things lying around," she explained, but she wanted to save the old bag.

She was afraid that if she washed it, the color would disappear, so she conceived the idea of embroidering the design. (Helen learned to embroider as a child.)

"I'm not too happy with my work on it," she said apologetically. "My work has improved a lot after doing all these bags."

Helen's original goal was to embroider 100 bags, but she has completed more than 150. She selected a special bag for her 100th: an All-American Flour bag depicting North and South America. She enjoys selecting seasonal designs to embroider: Holly Flour at Christmas, Early Bird Fine Chick Feed (embellished with a clock) for New Year's, and a clover seed bag for St. Patrick's Day.

Since she completed her 100th bag, she has tackled more difficult designs, but eye problems in recent years have slowed her work.

Helen tags each old bag with information about when and where she obtained it, when she started embroidering it, and when she finished it.

Usually, if the bag is dirty, she rinses it in cold water before starting to stitch. After completing the embroidery, she washes and irons the bag.

Sometimes the designs are so faded that Helen cannot identify the original colors. She has written to the companies and has received several positive responses, but many, of course, have gone out of business. Then, her only hope is to find an identical bag in better condition.

One year she embroidered 15 bags, but another year, just one bag design took nine months. That particular bag was made to hold bread flour, but had been used as a sandbag when the Mississippi River flooded. Printing on the back was in a foreign language that Helen couldn't read.

One bag in her collection has an apron pattern stamped on it; another has a pattern for a Swiss doll. A third bag has patterns for a lunch cloth, potholder and napkins.

A sugar bag was imprinted "Approved by Good Housekeeping Magazine."

Helen calls that one a "mother bag," because it originally held ten 10-pound sugar bags. She also has one of the smaller 10-pound capacity bags.

A 100-pound walnut bag carried the warning, "Every person cautioned not to use this bag for walnuts again under penalties provided by law."

Her bags range in size from one that held a pinch of salt from the Great Salt Lake, to a 50-lb. grass seed bag. Grass seed is so light that its bag is much larger than a 98-lb. flour bag.

Potato sacks are difficult to find, she said, because potatoes often rotted through the bags. Flour sacks usually were made from the nicest fabrics.

The bags themselves could serve as a roll call for long-gone agriculture product companies: Jockey Oats for Thoroughbreds, Hubbard's Sunshine Dairy Concentrate, Tiger Inn Flour, Murphy's Cut-Cost Concentrate for Hogs, Robe Hybrids Seeds, and many more.

At first, Helen was able to buy several bags at an auction for 50 cents. But now, she said, the price for one bag often starts at $5 and climbs from there.

Sometimes the stories of how Helen obtains the bags are as interesting as the designs. Her husband, John (now deceased), found one sack in the rag bag at the factory where he worked.

A friend found one being used as part of a mattress cover.

And one day, Helen answered a knock at the door to find a man standing there with an old bag.

"He tore up a rocking chair and found a bag used as padding on the seat," she said. "When people see an old bag, they think of me."

Indeed, Helen often laughingly refers to herself as "the old bag lady."

As Helen's fame as a bag lady grew, she was asked to present programs to area civic organizations. She enjoys presenting her bags together in a humorous way, explaining that she has Noble, Royal and Loyal seed bags.

"I've never been able to get up before people and talk," she said. "But this is so easy. It doesn't bother me at all."

Maybe she should just say "It's in the bag." FC 

Dianne L. Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.