Apron collector finds value of garment hard to replace
November 13, 2009
Aprons have served as cooks’ companions for centuries.
It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that TV shows began portraying the stereotype of the perfect mother who always wore a crisply pressed apron. Until then, the apron was simply a functional piece of the everyday wardrobe.
Apron collector Betty Mapes of Fullerton, Neb., says she doesn’t often wear the over-garment, “but I love them.”
Mapes has around 40 styles in her collection. Many she purchased at auctions and some are keepsakes, like the apron her grandmother gave her.
“Aprons have been with us a long, long time,” she said. “The principal use of the apron was to protect the dress because the lady of the house had only a few dresses, and because they use less material.
“The apron was also wonderful for drying children’s tears,” Mapes added. “From the chicken coop the apron was used for carrying eggs, busing chicks and sometimes carrying half-hatched eggs to be finished in the warming oven. When company came those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids and when it was cold grandma wrapped it around her arms.
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“Those big old aprons wiped many a perspiring brow over a hot wood stove, chips and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron and from the garden it carried all sorts of vegetables.”
APRONS HAVE BEEN an effective tool down through the years.
Not only for cooks.
Butchers, welders, store clerks and other occupations have used the apron to serve as a cover-up for messy tasks. Some researchers even point to the Biblical reference concerning the apron, citing the passage in which Adam and Eve “sewed together fig leaves to make aprons to cover themselves.”
The first aprons that Nebraska saw were the full length aprons worn by the pioneer women. It covered their clothing and was part of their dress.
Aprons and clothing made from feed sacks and flour sacks were popular in the thirties, forties, “and maybe into the fifties,” Mapes said. “I talked to a guy that sold feed. He said when his load would come in, he would have a stack of feed sacks and a woman would come in and want the one on the bottom. He’d unload them to get the one on the bottom, then the next lady would come in and she’d want the one on the bottom. He said it was quite a process just unloading the sacks to get the ladies the ones they wanted, and they wanted the dye lot to be the same, too.”
Aprons were also useful as dust cloths and dinner bells.
When unexpected company drove up the road, it was surprising how much furniture that apron could dust in a matter of seconds; and when dinner was ready, grandma walked out on the porch and waved her apron to let the men know it was time for dinner.
APRONS COULD BE bought in stores in the 1950s, but women preferred making their own. The introduction of the sewing machine and fabric being readily available made homemade aprons in the ’50s popular.
The post-World War II housewife was practical and used her imagination, sewing aprons out of extra kitchen curtains, handkerchiefs, dish towels and flour sacks. The typical homemaker had aprons color coordinated to match her outfits and at least one seasonal party apron. Because holiday aprons were big in that era, they were often elaborately decorated with netting, sequins and ribbon.
“Up into the 1960s is when we went into the half aprons,” Mapes explained. “When the women came across the prairie they were full length and through the years they were shortened. Around the ’60s and ’70s we did gingham aprons and everybody had a pattern.”
Mapes’s collection includes mostly homemade aprons of all sizes and styles – Christmas and cocktail; handkerchief, terry and flour sack aprons; gingham, crocheted, embroidered and lacy, pockets and pleated; and of course, her personal favorite: aprons with strawberry motifs.
“It will be a long time before anyone invents something that will replace that old fine apron that served so many purposes,” this collector said with certainty.