Do you remember where you were when you heard that Harriet Nelson had died? Probably not, but I do, because Harriet Nelson was my idol growing up. She was everything I wanted to be—a wife, mother and homemaker. Watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet every week on television, I reverently noted Harriet’s clever way with her husband and sons, how she dressed up each day to stay at home taking care of her family. I loved how they worshipped her. And, most of all, I coveted her apron.
My own mother was an enigma in our classically Fifties neighborhood. Long before it was the norm, she had a college degree, worked full time and raised a family. She enjoyed her career and was successful. But the job I wanted was Harriet’s. So in 1966, I entered the University of Southern Hospitality with the goal of acquiring my “Mrs.” degree. A tad sidetracked by boys in bell-bottoms and rock-and-roll, I nonetheless remained vigilant in pursuit of my girlhood goal of marrying my Ozzie and becoming a full-time homemaker and mother. Exchanging vows in 1975 and soon after twice a mother, I blissfully lived my girlhood dream. For 24 years I happily performed the domestic routines of old-fashioned housewifery and childrearing.
But for all the joys of this domestic bliss, my career choice as a full-time homemaker came to an end with the departure of our youngest for college. With his leave-taking, I dared imagine a second career as a writer. My first article, I decided, would be about the ultimate symbol of domesticity: the humble apron.
I visited several thrift stores before finding an inspirational apron in decent condition, its skirt of sunny yellow cotton with a wide periwinkle-blue waistband, and four evenly spaced narrow bands of colored bias tape. I didn’t realize it at the time, but, for only 25 cents, this apron would change my life.
Following a thorough laundering, it was while pressing the apron I experienced a surge of emotion of such visceral intensity that I initially thought I’d been electrocuted by the iron. Tying on the apron intensified a sense of spiritual connection to the homemaker who had selected the cloth, sewed the pattern and worn the apron as a part of her daily routine. I was replicating her actions, and in doing so, I sensed her trying to get through to me, to make me hear her voice. Fingering the fabric, I wondered what she might be trying to tell me, what she had been like, what we might have had in common. Whether she’d been happily married; if her children had driven her to distraction; if she had preferred dogs or cats; and what had been her favorite holiday, friend, book, recipe, laundry tip or beauty secret. I wondered whether her family still maintained the rituals she had performed for her family’s comfort and security, or whether in today’s hectic home life her ways are deemed obsolete.
I queried fifty friends and family about whether they wondered the same things. My request prompted a shockingly scant response, and several of an unanticipated personal critique that amounted to: “You have too much time on your hands.” Did I? I had been so deeply affected by an apron, and why was no one else?
Perhaps, I thought, the apron I had chosen was invested with transcendent qualities. Perhaps it was one of very few, or the only apron in the world, capable of affecting me so powerfully. To test this hypothesis, I did the obvious thing: I returned to the thrift stores with an old woven laundry basket that soon overflowed with all the various aprons I collected. I disconfirmed my hypothesis: All the aprons were magical.
For the next four years, I toted that laundry basket everywhere I went: the bank, grocery, library, hardware store, movie theatre, ballpark, concert, ladies’ restroom line and homes to which we were invited. Even when vacationing, I toted a smaller basket of aprons. The colorfully arrayed basket proved a magnet. Upon seeing and touching the aprons, men and women alike would enthusiastically share recollections of homemakers in their lives. The aprons served as memory triggers, sparking heartfelt stories of a long-ago relationship with a beloved mother, grandmother or aunt—a guardian of the hearth who tied on an apron as domestic armor to care, cook, nurture, manage and sacrifice for her family. The aprons called them back to special cakes baked for birthdays, ironing tips, dough recipes, values and traditions from gentler, less complicated times, a scent, a hug, a confidence, the nurturing love between mother and child.
The first apron I ever acquired through the mail was from New Mexico, a hand-sewn taffeta holiday apron wrapped in pink tissue. In an accompanying letter, the sender wrote that she was a neighbor to the apron’s seamstress, a Mrs. Dyer, who had died several years before. She’d heard through the grapevine that I “took in aprons.” She asked that I add Mrs. Dyer’s apron to my collection because no one from the family was alive to inherit it. I’d never been a guardian of anything before, and suddenly I was charged with the care of an heirloom and the memory of the woman who had worn it. Other aprons soon arrived in like manner, with stories of their own. As my collection grew, I felt a responsibility to learn about the history of this quotidian icon.
It turns out that the history of the apron goes back quite a ways. Lore has it that Adam and Eve fashioned the first kind of apron out of fig leaves, according to the third chapter of Genesis, to hide their nakedness from one another. However aprons came to be, almost every culture, as it turns out, has something resembling one. Many Indian tribes fabricated similar garments, which were worn by men as well as women. Immigrants brought aprons to America; they were a key part of a sensible woman’s wardrobe. Early American women had only a few dresses, and aprons—almost ankle-length and of rugged cloth—allowed for those dresses to be worn many times between launderings.
For female pioneers in the 1800s, rugged and stalwart by necessity, aprons remained a wardrobe mainstay. Homesteading alongside men, they tucked their dresses and aprons into waistbands as they cleared and plowed fields. Then, unfurling both, they used aprons to carry grain to chickens and vegetables from the garden, gather eggs, shoo flies from the table, remove a pan of biscuits from the oven, dry a child’s tears, wipe sweat from their brows and flour from their hands. Aprons could also ward off a chill, or even conceal a rifle.
The women who didn’t board a Calistoga wagon, but stayed put, mainly wore the protective, all-purpose apron of a domestic, nurse, factory laborer or seamstress. The well-heeled among them sported aprons as a stylish clothing accessory, often embellished as a domestic art in tiny, immaculate embroidery stitches, delicate crochet and other needlecrafts, which testified to their feminine skills.
During the Depression years delicate cotton was scarce or unaffordable, but women continued to make aprons and display their handiwork on whatever cloth was available, whether muslin, feed sack or recycled. By the 1940s, aprons and dresses were tighter fitting to conserve fabric, which reflected women’s support for the war effort and their commitment to “Make Do Without.” The postwar era was a time of abundance, and so aprons received upgrades in vibrant, bold colors. New household appliances gave the homemaker something previously unknown: free time. This let women sew as never before, with aprons often being the zenith of their avenues for creative expression. Also, for the first time, men donned aprons specific to their newfound past-time: backyard barbequing.
With the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, however, untold thousands of American women cast off their aprons and entered the workforce, seeking fulfillment outside the home. Liberated from ties now redefined to be suffocating instead of nurturing, some women went so far as to throw away their aprons. In that gesture of freedom from the past, these women unknowingly did away with a symbol that tied us to the women of preceding generations, and to each other.
Many aprons went undetected, however, and thus managed to survive the feminist purge. These were often discovered decades later by other women, usually adult daughters, nieces or younger cousins who sifted through their elders’ possessions in childhood homes. And with the same abandon and negative association of the women of the Sixties, these women very frequently stuffed those aprons into giveaway bags. Those are the aprons that today show up in thrift stores, to be rescued as priceless keepsakes intrinsic to the history of women and vehicles of feminine expression. To me, aprons celebrate the spirit of women. They are oracles of simple truths of home and heart. That’s why it’s more than a pleasure to “tie one on”; it’s a statement.
In the decade since I became a textile guardian of these touchstones of earlier generations, I have listened to and read hundreds of stories. I have learned that an apron memory isn’t a scholarly dissertation mired in dusty facts and details. It is a story of family life, a personal history that engages and catches you up in the telling and the listening. Without the stories, aprons are just so much fabric. It’s the memories they evoke that make them so powerful. Three examples in particular come to mind.
With the publication in 2006 of The Apron Book, many readers were moved to share their apron memories with me. This story was typed on a postcard. It remains one of my favorites, for the precious innocence of a child at the turn of the century. La Veta Trezise, who today is 91 and still lives independently in her own home, says her father, John Lester Trezise, loved to tell this story.
In 1899 my father was six years old, and his mother was pregnant with her sixth child. My grandmother went into labor at home on their farm. The five children were sent across the field to stay at the neighbor’s. As they crossed the field, the neighbor lady was coming to their house to be the midwife for their pregnant mother. As she walked past the children, she had her arms wrapped in her kitchen apron.
When the six-year-old, my father, returned home later in the day, he had a brand new baby sister. And he was forever convinced that the baby was brought to their home in the apron of the neighbor lady.
Junior high school during the 1950s required girls to take a home economics class, and the first sewing project was always an apron. Bennie Swanson was one of the first 46 people to come upon me and my basket of aprons, and hers is one of the apron stories that comprise my traveling exhibit, “Apron Chronicles: A Patchwork of American Recollections.” Our paths crossed in 2002, the year her mother, Neva Carrico, died. Bennie’s sadness was still fresh, and she told me that she and her mom “…will always be connected by loving apron strings.”
When Dad died at 38, Mother had to raise four young daughters by herself. She kept our family going by working in a bakery, scrubbing floors and cases. After a long day, she’d return home and still have the energy to run the house, sew our clothes and sing. Her favorite song was “Sunny side of the Street.” If she had fears, we never knew them, because she always had a song to brighten a cloudy day. Even when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she kept looking at the bright side of things. Asked how she was doing, she always smiled and said, “I can’t complain.”
As I was going through her things, I spotted a familiar fabric in the back of a kitchen drawer. It was the apron I’d made in seventh grade home-ec class back in 1959. Such wonderful memories are woven into the lavender checked cloth: going to Duckwall’s together to purchase the fabric, my excitement at learning to sew, the thrill of presenting the completed apron to her, how special I felt when she wore it to fix dinner, and most of all, her unconditional love and how her face lit up when I walked into the room. I miss my mom.
Mrs. Martha Marie Pugh wrote her story in elegant cursive. When I mentioned her exquisite handwriting to Drucilla, Mrs. Pugh’s daughter-in-law, she said such grace was extraordinary, given the tremendous starkness of her mother-in-law’s young life in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Even more exceptional is that from such a hardscrabble world, Martha Marie Barnes would later travel the world, visit England and be presented to the Queen.
I was born in 1931, during the Great Depression. Santa did not show up at our house with a big bag of gifts; my parents, however, did see that we got at least one gift.
The Christmas when I was 4 years old, my gift was a little pink apron trimmed in white rickrack. I loved it and showed it to everyone. It meant so much to me, I wore it until it was falling apart.
That little apron was such a sacrifice for my parents. I can’t imagine what they did without so I might not be disappointed on Christmas morning.
It was my best Christmas present ever.
When I look back at all the projects I’ve begun and abandoned over the past half century, I have to wonder why I persevere on this apron journey. The answer is, I’ve decided, that I could spend a lifetime traveling this great country with a laundry basket of vintage aprons and collecting the most interesting stories told by the dearest people—all through the conduit of an old-fashioned, nearly forgotten domestic icon. That such a mundane object can conjure such distant memories, evoke such strong emotions and prompt so many new friendships, all celebrating the lives of women past and present, never ceases to amaze me. This journey provides me endless inspiration. Wherever it leads, I know I will always hear a new voice, for aprons don’t hold us back, they take us back.