Aprons throughout History: These Unsung Heroes of the Wardrobe Are Resurfacing as Art

By Kreiter, Ted | The Saturday Evening Post, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Aprons throughout History: These Unsung Heroes of the Wardrobe Are Resurfacing as Art


Kreiter, Ted, The Saturday Evening Post


Aprons. At one time in America, no grandmother, mother or daughter would be found working in the kitchen without one. Each house had a special drawer set aside for aprons with plenty to spare and hand out in case relatives arrived and joined in the cooking and the dishwashing.

Aprons were simply a part of life. They could be work-a-day or stylish--and some were worn just for show. For weddings, showers, church bazaars, and just plain friendship from one neighbor to another, an apron always made a proper gift. But somehow aprons and apron wearers began disappearing--we hardly even noticed the change. During the last decades of the 20th century, modern life was passing aprons by and the decades-old tradition of the home apron had all but vanished.

Then, just as we were thinking aprons had become relics of a bygone era, something happened. Aprons began reappearing--not so much in kitchens as in books and museum displays. An apron renaissance of sorts was underway. With an eye toward the industry and beauty of these homemade apron creations, collectors began combing flea markets and secondhand stores, uncovering apron treasures of the past.

One such collector is Joyce Cheney, whose book, Aprons: Icons of the American Home, presents aprons in a way most people have never looked at them before--as objects of beauty, industry, nostalgia and humor.

She writes, "The power of aprons lies in how they make us feel and what they help us to remember. For many, aprons are nostalgic. They represent being loved and loving others, security, stability, simpler times, and very different times--components of an American Dream that includes apple pie and white picket fences. Not all of us lived like the Cleavers, of course, but the significance of aprons is nevertheless based on something stronger than historical fact--a sort of mythology, a collective source of memories and feelings, a social fabric, if you will.

"Aprons provide direct ties to our personal and shared histories. The housewife and the hired help, the server and the served, the slave and the mistress all wore aprons. The women in each of our families have worn them--if not us, then our mothers or their mothers or theirs, and for that matter, more than a few fathers and grandfathers as well."

Cheney recalls the day her eyes were opened to aprons in 1989, at a women's festival in the Ozarks. A colorful collection of old handsewn aprons "on a clothesline that wandered through the oak woods ... reminded me of apron memories.... When I was little, I'd climb on a stool to help my mother with the dishes; she would tie one of her aprons around me, up under my armpits so I wouldn't trip on its strings."

Bitten by the apron bug, Cheney mounted her own first apron show in 1994, "26 freshly ironed aprons flapping in the breeze." People liked to touch them as well as look at them, she says. One puzzled little girl who had never seen an apron asked her mother, "What are they?"

Aprons: Icons of the American Home grew out of Cheney's national traveling exhibit of more than 250 aprons that received widespread interest and acclaim. Aprons, Cheney says, "are manifestations of resourcefulness, artifacts of important work, and examples of creativity, which are simply enjoyable to look at. …

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