As promised, here is my apron history that I gave at tonight's mother/daughter banquet.
Momma’s Apron Strings
They say Junior’s tied to Momma’s apron strings when he’s really just tied to Momma. Junior’s not even sure what an apron is. With a whole generation losing sense of what an apron meant to women—and men—throughout the centuries, it might be time to revisit an old tradition.
Noah Webster defined the word apron as, “a portion of cloth, leather or other material, worn as a protective or ornamental cover in front.” Traditionally, people have worn aprons to cover and protect their clothing from all sorts of destructive forces. At the heyday of aprons, we had butcher’s aprons, cook’s aprons, craftsmen’s aprons, griller’s aprons, and more. Today, they remain popular, though mainly for the professionals and those who wish for yesteryear.
With all of this apron celebrity, one must wonder when and where they first came into being. The first place to look is at the beginning of time as recorded in the first book of the Bible: Genesis.
Aprons burst on the scene pretty early, as early as Adam and Eve and the sin that sent us all on a downward spiral. Genesis 3:7 states that after the first man and woman—Adam and Eve—believed a lie and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they realized they were naked so they made aprons of fig leaves to hopefully cover their shame. They couldn’t hide from the Lord, however. Though they began to die the moment they disobeyed God, and deservedly so, God killed animals to make coverings with the skins for these disobedient people.
It was a bloody beginning for the human race and the early aprons, but something better was on the horizon.
Not long after, aprons moved from something symbolizing a bloody covering to cloth with healing properties. When the apostle Paul drove out demons during his missionary journeys to Ephesus, Acts 19:12 states, “So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.” Now we understand that neither Paul nor the aprons held any supernatural powers and the apostles healed people through the name of Christ. But many didn’t comprehend this. Always looking for idols, folks attributed the power to a simple inanimate object.
As history moved forward, superstition trumped the truth and folks did some really strange things. In the early days, women were considered dangerous and unclean and, if they were to be allowed any sort of fellowship, they had to cover themselves with aprons. If not, the evil forces within them would be let loose and everyone around them would suffer.
In Nordic countries, many women wore multiple layers of aprons to protect those around her from bad luck. If a traveling man happened to meet a woman without the proper apron coverings, he might fall into some sort of despair. And if a woman were to be pregnant, she could wear no less than two aprons—one under her dress as well as over it—so that her unborn child would not get sick. Strangely enough, the superstitious beliefs worked the opposite in some cases, such as in Sweden. Animals became better suited to the farm if a woman laid an apron outside the barn for them to tread over.
Women, rather than men, were the main apron wearers for centuries. In European women’s graves, pieces of aprons have been found dating to about 800 B.C., the time of the Vikings. It took until about 1500 A.D. for aprons to gain widespread popularity enough that they became a visible part of a woman’s dress. At this time the long unisex dress that had been the fashion staple ended and women were on their way to creating their own lines of clothing.
Then women’s dresses developed a waist line. Skirts were born. Women dared to be a little risqué and showed some skin with shorter skirts that didn’t drag the floor and give it a good sweeping. It took no time at all before the Spanish kingdom stated that the waist piece should be tightened so that no piece of a woman’s body would be shown. Large collars and wide puffy sleeves helped to hide skin. Inside layers of frilly skirts a woman could literally hide. The most interesting part of this state-imposed uniform was the small piece of fabric in a different color that was worn on the outside of the dress—the ever popular apron.
When the eighteenth century dawned the apron had a major makeover. Instead of being long and thin, it now became shorter and wider. Then a century later, another change tugged at the apron strings with the advent of pattern printed cotton fabrics. By now, the apron had become a very important article of clothing.
Depending on the social status of the wearer, the apron came to mean different
things to different people. In the higher classes, it was mainly used as an accessory, much as jewelry would be used today. The working class, however, viewed the apron has an integral part of the dress code.
Basic aprons could be made from pieces of cloth held together with whatever material was available at the time of construction. For example, the cloth might be tucked into the waist or cinched with a belt or piece of twine, or it could be tied using the corners of the fabric itself. As time went on, the design improved as “apron strings” were added. After this, apron strings became a symbol of a domineering mother.
On the first full bib aprons, the bibs were held in place with pins or buttons; then came a nice improvement with neck straps. In the United States during the 1800’s, most aprons were made of homespun material as people produced most of their own goods. Later, women experimented with decorating their aprons with rickrack or embroidery, and by the 1900’s, aprons became just plain fancy.
Slave aprons in the early South weren’t fancy, though. The mammies, the slave women who cared for the babies and small children, wore tired and worn out aprons that appeared as if they were crafted from rags, which they likely were. These aprons were well used as they swaddled babies, wiped dirty faces and noses, safely carried eggs, and drug wood inside. Aprons could be washed easily and were a whole cheaper to make than a new dress, so they were highly prized.
Men began to wear aprons too. Bakers, butchers, welders, blacksmiths, carpenters, school teachers, shop keepers, waiters and even children donned aprons. Surgeons wore aprons too, but over time they morphed into white coats.
The early aprons of the 20th Century were loose full aprons and were called Hooverettes. When World War II changed things, aprons had to flow with the times. Fabric was expensive so towels, feed sacks and flour bags worked well to craft aprons. If an apron was on its last legs, the remaining scraps were cut and pieced with other scraps to form a quilt.
By the 1940’s, aprons gained a comeback with a new cinched waistline and bright colors. During the 1950’s half-aprons were popular, trimmed with lace and highly starched. Did you ever see June Cleaver without an apron? All good mothers wore them. And when relatives came for a visit, a kitchen drawer popped open and out came extra aprons for the company to use while there.
So where are we today with aprons? Most had disappeared from the kitchen by the 1980’s, except for those belonging to the die-hard apron lovers of older generations. The good news is that aprons are seeing a revival as cooking shows on cable TV become more and more popular. Everybody wants to be Rachel Rae. If you don’t watch TV, you can always go to hardware stores or meat markets if you want to see aprons in their occupational best.
Aprons are great coverings with quite a past, but perhaps their greatest tribute goes back to the Garden of Eden and that first apron with the bloody past. God didn’t use it to cover the shame of two sinners. He used it to symbolize the covering of something greater: Jesus Christ and His shed blood on Calvary. With such an apron our sins can be wiped away, rather than just covered up so that our shame can’t be seen by our peers. It is an apron that will last forever and the best part is that it’s free for the asking.