Aprons have probably been around since the dawn of clothing; up until the Industrial Revolution, most people only had the clothes on their backs, or at most one additional change of clothing – in which case they were considered either very well off or thieves; a large number of the thefts reported in the 17th and 18th centuries had to do with clothing articles; the clothes made the man or woman, and if they could upgrade their wardrobe through “five-finger discounting,” they might have a better chance at finding a good job with better wages. The style of aprons has changed through the years, and while sometimes their function was little more than a fashion statement, such as in the painting below, their main purpose has never become obsolete: To carry out every imaginable chore in and around the home.
My paternal grandparents, the Herrings, were Kansas pioneer farmers; my grandmother (Mary Mae) headed west from Indiana in a covered wagon with her parents (James Allen and Carrie Christine Higbee nee Aaroe) as a baby; she grew up on the prairies of Kansas, met my grandfather, and the rest is history.
Most of my childhood memories are of my paternal grandparents’ farm; we spent many weekends there helping out, and I spent a week or two every summer with them. My grandmother was always in an apron, except for Sunday mornings and special events – and those are the times when photographs were taken, so unfortunately I don’t have a photo of her in an apron. But I have something much better: A hand-sewn quilt, made lovingly by her from around 1920 to the late 1970s. The materials used for that quilt are her old aprons, Sunday dress scraps and other spare cloths; I remember seeing her in several of them.
Being a farmer’s wife, my grandmother’s aprons weren’t as fancy as these vintage patterns shown above; they were plain, simple and hand-made; they did what they were needed for, and no more, no less. But as simple as they might have been, those aprons were worth their weight in gold on a farm: They protected her scanty wardrobe – she didn’t need much, didn’t want much, and was satisfied to take care of what she’d been blessed with. Those aprons carried baby chicks, kittens, flowers, herbs, chicken eggs, apples, firewood and wood chips, baby birds fallen from nests in a wind storm, and the occasional sugar cube for the horses. They wiped away tears, cleaned dirty faces, dusted furniture if guests were walking up the path, took delicious things from the oven, cold things from the freezer, and helped open canning jars. They shaded a cold pie on her lap in the old Chevy truck while we bounced across the fields to bring my grandfather a picnic for lunch break in the summer heat (she could have used an old quilt for the pie, but that was often used to cradle a large mason jar full of ice cold water, the best thirst-quencher I know). Those aprons helped gather grains, and stones to move either from the garden or to the flower bed. They carried chicken feed and broken eggs shells to feed the chickens to make their eggs stronger; they held potatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, sweet peas, strawberries and squash. They were the perfect cradle for a garden watermelon, rolling it into the refrigerator to get it nice and cold on a hot day. They warmed her hands on a cold day as she dug for the last of the potatoes before winter’s freeze, and hid her dirty hands when guests arrived unannounced. They polished cutlery, fanned her face to cool her down on a sweltering hot day, and were the perfect place to hide for shy children. One never knew what that apron would do next.
Little could my paternal grandmother have guessed that the quilt she made from so many scraps of memories would eventually accompany her granddaughter back over the ocean her mother had traversed as a newborn baby from Denmark, and end up within 20 km from where my maternal ancestors have been traced: Zofingen, Aargau, Switzerland. I can’t imagine any other piece of cloth carrying so much history, authority, importance, practicality, humility, common sense and love.
Adapted from an article originally posted on History Undusted, 5 Oct. 2015