Mailbag: Bread bag edition
Last week, we published an article looking into the high-profile claim by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that she would sometimes wear bread bags over her shoes as a child to keep out the rain.
To recap, here’s what Ernst said in her response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address:
"We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning," Ernst said. "You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed, because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet. Our parents may not have had much, but they worked hard for what they did have."
Our story -- in which we interviewed Iowans on their thoughts about Ernst’s anecdote -- prompted a flurry of readers to write us with their own recollections of wearing bread bags over their feet (or not, as the case may have been).
"I grew up on a farm about three miles northeast of Stanton, Iowa, in the 1950s. My parents were poor dirt farmers, just like Ms. Ernst’s. There were a few families in town and others living on farms with better land than ours that we considered well-off. I graduated from Stanton High School (Go Vikings!) in 1959 and my brothers and I rode the school bus to school every day. I don’t recall ever wearing bread wrappers over my shoes, nor do I remember ever seeing any other kids on the bus wearing bread wrappers on their shoes. Maybe this was a phenomenon that happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I don’t know.
"I have to give Ms Ernst credit for her hard work and drive to get where she is today, but I felt as I watched her speak the other night that the bread wrapper story was a bit over the top, if not a downright fable. But since there seem to be others who recall such a thing, perhaps we just weren’t as poor as we thought we were."
"Sen. Ernst portrays her 1970s bread-bagging one's shoes and covering shoe sole holes with cardboard as being unique to Iowa. In Whiting, Ind., in the ‘30s, we used the cardboard dividers from Shredded Wheat boxes to cover our shoe holes. I guess it took Iowans 40 years to learn that trick!"
"Michigan was not a stranger to this. My daughter brought this up as a memory of her school years -- usually negative. This was the ‘60s. We used them in winter inside the boots. We lived in the city, so it was not just the rural kids. My friend from Nebraska remembered the same. I told my daughter no more whining -- now you’ve got street cred!"
"We did it in the South, but it was definitely not a sign of poverty. It was just smart mothers who wanted to keep their kids’ feet dry in inclement weather."
"What poor farm family could afford store-bought bread but no work shoes or boots? I grew up on a small farm, too. My mom baked every loaf of bread in our home."
"I found the whole thing about Sen. Ernst's speech to be somewhat amusing. I am 24 years older than the senator, and I grew up on a farm in rural, southeast Minnesota, near the town of Fountain. Later, around the time the senator was a young girl, I drove a school bus for the local school district.
"I never saw anyone wearing bread wrappers on their feet. Maybe it was peculiar to southwest Iowa. First of all, it would be dangerous. Wet and, especially snowy, ground is slippery enough; smooth plastic bags on one's feet would be murderous. Second, everyone wore overshoes of some variety. These protected one's shoes while providing a (reasonably) non-skid tread. The entryways of the school would have literally hundreds of pairs lined up in them. (I once went to the extent of writing my name on mine with yellow paint so I could find them quickly when school got out.) Some kids would leave their overshoes on the school bus. They didn't need them to walk from the bus to the school on the shoveled sidewalk, but wore them to walk from the bus to the house on a muddy driveway.
"Farm kids, of course, wore overshoes ‘as needed’ year around when working around animals, for obvious reasons. Sometimes these same overshoes turned up in school. ..."
"Much of what Sen. Ernst said seems to be more along the line of a good story based on the practices of a generation or two earlier, rather than being a particularly factual account of her own time and place."
One of the people we interviewed for our story compared wearing bread bags with making clothes out of feedsacks.
"In the 'olden days,' many feedsacks -- in fact, most sacks for home use -- were essentially calico or gingham prints in brightly colored patterns, so housewives could make clothing from them, usually, childrens' clothing, particularly before World War II, when money was tight. The boomer generation escaped that need."
"I am 77 years old and last fall when I was on the North Carolina coast, it was a cold, windy day, and we decided to take a walk on the beach. I was the only one smart enough to put bread bags on my shoes. I tied them on with a rubber band at the top, around my calf. The idea was to keep my shoes clean of sand. I surely learned this good idea many years ago. I guess I should submit it to a magazine to inform the younger generation! Or is it just folks in Florida who never got the word?"