Object: Field Sack

Fig 1

Field sack
Eckert, Texas
Date: ca. 1928-1929
Materials: Textile

Mina Mae Duderstadt (1914-2008) used this field sack for picking cotton while she was a young woman living and working on a farm with her family in Eckert, which is near Runge, TX. On May 6, 1930 the great tornado of Runge, destroyed the farm they lived on. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it was the 7th worst tornado in Texas since 1900.  Due to the damages, her family relocated to San Antonio, where her father found a job.

Mina Mae Duderstadt with Hardy Kieth

Photo of Mina Mae Duderstadt with Hardy Kieth, provided by object donor.

She would have used this sack in the late 1920s, likely 1928 or 1929. Cotton picking is tedious and strenuous work. The way that cotton grows meant that even as farms were mechanizing in the 20th century, it needed to be picked by hand. Mechanized methods of picking cotton were not common until after 1950.  Cotton grows in a pod called a boll. In order to pick the cotton, one can either pick the whole boll then pull the cotton out of it, or one can carefully pull the cotton out of the boll while it is still on the plant.

The following video shows a cotton picker demonstrating how cotton was traditionally harvested prior to mechanization.

Fig 4

Photo via: WikiMedia Commons

The sack is slung over the shoulder and trails behind the person picking cotton. Farmers are paid for cotton by the hundred pounds, and a good cotton picker can pick a few hundred pounds a day. Due to its age and the rugged nature of the work it was used for, this particular field sack is in rough condition, with a number of tears and stains from being used in the field.

On smaller family-owned farms and tenant farms or those who are sharecropping, every one pitched in to pick the cotton. Children often worked alongside their parents as the whole family worked together to ensure survival. On tenant farms the farmers supplied their own seed, machinery and labor, and the land owner typically received 1/3 of the profits. Sharecroppers were supplied with the seed and machinery by the land owner who typically received half of the profit. Frequently farmers borrowed money or purchased needed items on credit, to be paid back when the crops were harvested. Hiring workers to help pick the cotton would mean less money to pay off debts or buy needed supplies for the household.  However, some farmers did hire migrant workers to pick their cotton if there were not enough people on their farm to do so.

Fig 5

Photo via: WikiMedia Commons

Once picked, cotton must have the boll and seeds removed before it can be prepared to make cloth. Before the end of the 18th century, this process was once done by hand, slowly and painstakingly. The heartier short staple cotton most often grown in Texas did not work well in the simple machines such as the charka, used for the cotton grown in other parts of the world, like the long staple cotton grown in India. Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin provided the necessary ease in processing that allowed cotton to become King in Texas. [Christine Moscardini-Hall, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]

Additional Resources:

Allen, Ruth Alice. 1975. The labor of women in the production of cotton. New York: Arno Press.

Black, Mary S. “Living on a Cotton Farm: Mexican American Life in Texas.” Texas Beyond History. University of Texas

Interview with B. Goff, 1985: Institute of Texan Cultures Oral History Collection, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.

Interview with Christine Nagy East, Louis Nagy, and Edie Nagy, 1986: Institute of Texan Cultures Oral History Collection, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.

Interview with Emma G. Ortega, 1995: Institute of Texan Cultures Oral History Collection, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.

Sharpless, Rebecca. 1999. Fertile ground, narrow choices: women on Texas cotton farms, 1900-1940. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Sitton, Thad, and Dan K. Utley. 1997. From can see to can’t Texas cotton farmers on the southern prairies. Austin, Tex: University of Texas Press.


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3 responses to “Object: Field Sack”

  1. Glenda Joanne Duming says :

    I used one of these sacks to pick cotton as a child in southern Alabama. The first cotton sack was a pillow slip with a band on it to put over the shoulder. I used it when I was 5 and six years old. Then, as I grew taller, the sack grew longer. By the time I was sixteen years old, it would hold 50 to 75 pounds of cotton at the time (the weight depending on the tie of the day it was picked. Early morning was the heaviest while the due was still on the cotton}. It was so heavy I couldn’t pick it up to be weighed. We were paid by the pound, which my father was given at the end of the week by the owner of the land. That is how we earned money to pay for things we could not grow. It was a hard life and one that taught me the value of education.

    • kmccloud says :

      Ms. Duming:
      Great comment! Thank you so much for sharing. It’s always great to hear from individuals that have first hand experiences with the types of objects we feature on this blog.

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