Flour bags from the past are educating the present

Kalee Chism

Years ago, nearly every town in Kentucky had a flour mill. Today, the bags once used to hold the crop are being displayed at the Jackson Gallery in the Kentucky Building on WKU’s campus.

“Milling Around: Flour in Our Cupboard” is an exhibit that shows multiple items related to milling and Kentucky, including cloth and paper flour bags, a grist millstone, books and manuscripts. 

“Milling Around is an exhibit that features our flour bag collection, but it also talks about all the other things related to milling,” Jonathan Jeffery, the Department Head for Library Special Collections and Manuscripts and Folklife Archives Coordinator. “We’ve got a grist millstone, documents of how much it costs to build a mill in the 1800’s here in Warren County, so it’s a hodgepodge of things all related to milling in some way, and all related to Kentucky.”

Jeffery’s interest in the bags started due to the graphics often placed on them as a marketing strategy, he then donated them to the Kentucky Building where the exhibit is in place.

“I love the iconography, or what some people call the graphics, on the bags themselves,” Jeffery said. “They’re very bright and bold, and they were meant to pull people right to them as a selling mechanism. So I always enjoyed that part of it, and I just thought every little community in Kentucky had a flour mill at one time. They had bags like this and unfortunately over the years I find fewer and fewer and fewer of them. And so there’s this whole history that’s gone.” 

Jeffery said he believes the bags show a piece of the community’s history as well, giving them a deeper meaning than just the graphics. 

“I love the images that are on the bags themselves, that’s what attracted me to it in the first place, and also how they document the community,” Jeffery said. “Sometimes these pieces from our past tell us a little bit about the community we live in.”

Kentucky has a long milling history as they were used not only to make bread, but also to power other industries. Nearly every community in Kentucky had a mill.

“Everybody had to eat bread at one time or another,” Jeffery said. “These mills often supported auxiliary things such as textiles operations in the same building because they all used the same water power and steam power. It was a very significant industry in Kentucky all the way up until the 1920’s and the mills started to consolidate and we lost a lot of the smaller mills.”

Jeffery said that the mills gave a uniqueness to towns throughout Kentucky. 

“[The mills] gave them a since of identity, that this is a product that is locally produced, that we can trust this person that’s doing it,” Jeffery said. “I feel like sometimes we buy food from the grocery store so there’s no attention to that at all, it’s all hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away from us but in that day it was locally produced. And it’s funny how now we have this whole movement back to locally produced food, and this trust issue about food, and I think there’s a tie-in there that students could go away from the exhibit and see how that operated at that time.”

The exhibit offers a range of different bags, books and artifacts that give you a deeper look into the milling industry of that time.

“I just find it a surprise in terms of the variety and the artwork and the extent of the flour milling industry and the bags that were produced in this area,” said Lynn Niedermeier, the Manuscripts Assistant. “It’s just quite an interesting thing that you don’t even think about in terms of it’s visual aspects as well as the business aspects.”

Jeffery said he students can look deeper into the marketing strategies that bags served, as well as the evolution of milling and it’s impact on our communities right here in Kentucky.

“I think an appreciation for marketing, how they decided to print these very bold patterns on these bags, and that we do lose things eventually, things change and evolve and I think the exhibit shows the evolution of milling and Kentucky and the marketing techniques that were used in the past,” said Jeffery. “It also helps to show how it waned, it could no longer substantiate itself in these smaller communities.”

Reporter Kalee Chism can be reach-ed at 270-745-2653.