When Rosie the Riveter traded the noisy factory for a cozy kitchen she turned in her coveralls and tied on pretty and practical aprons. Thanks to changed societal values and a media blitz, this switch to domesticity had a big effect on women’s fashions in the post-World War II world.
Of course the wearing of aprons has a long history, even dating back to biblical times. In one translation, Genesis 3:7 reports Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” In the Book of Ruth such a covering is called “a mantle.”
Protection of one’s everyday clothes made excellent sense in light of times before easy-to-care-for fabrics. Before modern washing machines laundry chores demanded tremendous time and energy. Many jobs were – and still are – messy, depending on cover-ups for practicality and cleanliness.
Farm wives often preferred long wrap-around kinds, styles for gathering eggs, shelling peas and carrying wood kindling. Workers such as carpenters, blacksmiths, cobblers, butchers and bakers don aprons.
Apron types range from short ones that tie around the waist; those with halter straps around the neck or crisscrossed in the back; bib aprons, often with heart shapes sewn atop a short waist style; “pinners,” or square pieces which, as their name suggests, are pinned to the wearer’s dress; pinafores, favorites for children, as seen in Alice In Wonderland drawings; and smocks that look almost like a dress worn over a dress. For years these coverings were created from every sort of fabric including fine silks, linens, wools and cottons. Aprons can be constructed from sheer organdies and heavy canvas, light ginghams and coarse feed sack. Other materials can include leather, plastic – even lead for protective x-raying aprons – modern polyester and rayon.
Historically, aprons can almost be considered as garments, especially when worn as part of a uniform such as those of chefs, welders, waitresses and parlor maids These specific styles, long enough to cover regular clothes, often feature pockets for products ranging from tools to pot holders.
But the word “accessory” describes aprons that boomed in popularity mid-20th century. Advertisements and television promoted images of happy housewives in darling little aprons decorated, adorned or embroidered as eye-catching fashions. June Cleaver in Leave It To Beaver, Jane Wyatt in Father Knows Best, Andy Hardy’s mom, Fay Holden and Harriett Nelson on the show Ozzie and Harriett all presented pretty pictures of domestic bliss. Everyone knew floors weren’t scrubbed by glamorous creatures wearing high heels and pearls but companies like Sunbeam, Frigidaire, Hamilton Beach, General Electric, Proctor and Gamble, Campbell Soups, made sure fetching females touting their wares wore pretty aprons often while holding “somethin’ lovin’ from the oven.”
Until the early 1990s, unlike vintage linens, aprons weren’t particularly popular as collectibles but that changed as nostalgia buffs looked to another era. They not only remembered kitchen scenes of mothers, aunts and grandmothers and aromas of home cooking, they recalled their own experiences stirring Jell-O or, wrapped in a big apron, helping to make Christmas cookies. And they also discovered that vintage aprons could be had surprisingly inexpensively.
Folks may eat out more often and depend on the freezer and microwave, unlike their early relatives, but home decorators today find aprons versatile and a fine way to create practical and pleasant memories. Aprons attached to chair backs, made into colorful window valences or bright faux clothesline displays present creativity plus memories.
Google “vintage aprons” to find sites with offerings from $10 to $250.
Online sellers abound. Alana Morgaine is an excellent example of how collecting and selling vintage aprons can be fun and profitable while offering history along with merchandise.
Morgaine, a grandmother by day and online merchant in her spare time, does it all by traveling to estate sales and antique shows in rural communities throughout her home state. She sells exclusively through her Web site, www.alanascherishedtreasures.com.
Her aprons sell from $22.50 to as much as $42.50. She even sells patterns.
Many books are available such as Aprons: Icons of the American Home by Joyce Cheney (Running Press, Philadelphia, 2006); Aprons of the Mid-20th Century: To Serve and Protect by Judy Florence (Schiffer Publishing, Pennsylvania, 2001); and The Apron Book: Making, Wearing and Sharing a Bit of Cloth and Comfort by Ellyn Anne Geisel (Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, 2006.)
Geets Vincent is a longtime Antique Trader contributor, freelance writer, college instructor and antiques enthusiast living in Santa Rosa, Calif.
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