History out of the bag

The history of a simple but important item, the cloth bag, will be explored at a free program this weekend in Webster City.

Michael Zahs will present “Iowa History in a Cloth Bag” at Mulberry Center Church in Wilson Brewer Park at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Zahs will explain how cloth bags and the revolutionary idea of marketing to women helped Iowans survive the Great Depression and the shortages of World War II.

Zahs, who said he’s spent many years on a farm, remembers his mother giving him a brand-new shirt made out of a feed sack when he was young.

“I was very proud of it,” Zahs said.

Over the years, Zahs said he has collected hundreds of bags which held sugar, salt, corn, flour and more. In addition to clothing, he said the bags were used to make towels, bed sheets, curtains and quilts among other things. Zahs said he brings more of these bags than he can show during his 45-minute presentation. However, he invites the public to attend and ask questions because many of their questions can be answered with examples from his collection.

One of the reasons that Zahs said those cloth bags are historically significant is because they were the first things marketed to women. It was the beginning of several innovations in the field including marketing research. It also marked a shift in household buying habits.

“Back then, men were the ones who went into town and did the shopping,” Zahs said. “It was a very unusual and novel idea to market to women and it was extremely successful.”

Zahs said his program has been popular with men and women, some of whom remember wearing cloth bags themselves and others who have never heard of the practice before.

“It’s gone well, it’s fun and I’m glad to come up to this part of the state,” Zahs said.

“Iowa History in a Cloth Bag” is one of many programs Zahs presents across Iowa and the country through Humanities Iowa and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Currently, he is performing research and hosting programs on a collection of very early film dating back to 1985. Next week, he will host a program on those films at the Library of Congress.