Apron collection has long and varied history

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — Did you know that the word “apron” comes from the French word for “napkin?”

Or that those garments — either fancy or practical that we remember our mothers or grandmothers wearing — became more popular in the 1880s when women started doing more of their own cooking?

Susan Hill of Colfax has about 150 aprons in her collection and did a presentation on aprons for the Merry Mixers group at the Grapevine Senior Center September 6.

Aprons are used for a variety of purposes: to protect the wearer, to protect the wearer’s clothing, to adorn a costume, or as an object for ceremonies, Hill said.

People who wear aprons or have worn aprons include housewives; professional craftsmen such as butchers, bakers, welders and stonemasons; gardeners; cooks; chemists; chefs; bartenders and waitresses, she said.

The national costume for Norwegian women, called a bunad, features an apron, as do the national costumes for Sweden and Finland, Hill said.

Bishops, priests and archbishops wear ceremonial aprons, she noted.

In the early history of the United States, pioneer women owned very few dresses, and aprons became popular because they could be used to help keep the dresses cleaner and could be washed more easily than a dress, Hill explained.

Aprons come in a variety of sizes and shapes: half aprons, bib aprons, pinafores, cobbler apron, smocks and wrap-arounds, she said.

Half aprons might typically be what most people think of as an apron and is tied around the waist.

We may think of a pinafore as something that fits over your head and ties in back, but true pinafores were actually pinned to the front of the dress, Hill said.

Aprons are made out of a variety of materials, such as organza, cotton, gingham, paper, or plastic and can be decorated with rick-rack, lace, embroidery or fancy handkerchiefs, she said.

During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, it was popular to give small, fancy aprons, often made out of organza, to servers at weddings who served as cake cutters and who poured coffee and otherwise served guests at the reception.

A number of women in the audience said they either still had — or did have at one time — aprons that they had received for serving at weddings.

As one woman pointed out: people getting married nowadays would not dream of holding their wedding reception in a church basement or asking friends or church members to serve wedding cake and coffee.

Hill displayed a number of aprons in her collection and talked about many of them: gingham aprons, organza with rick-rack violets; aprons with embroidery; handkerchief aprons with delicate ladies’ handkerchiefs worked into the design; holiday aprons with Christmas trees and poinsettias.

One woman in the audience said she still wears an apron when she bakes to keep flour off her clothes. Another woman said she remembered her grandmother wearing an apron and going out to feed the chickens with chicken feed in the pocket to sprinkle for her flock.

At one point, Hill displayed her largest apron, and when she reached into the pocket, produced her smallest apron.

She said she stored her smallest apron in the pocket of the largest apron so she could keep track of the small apron.

Hill also talked about her “heritage aprons,” a collection of aprons with local connections, such as her mother’s apron, and aprons worn by aunts, friends and women known around Colfax.
One apron had been given to Hill by a Colfax resident who said it was her “wedding apron.”

The apron was long, white, fancy and of a pinafore-type design.
Hill said she wondered if at one time, when women could not afford to buy wedding dresses, that they dressed up their best dresses with a “wedding” apron when they were getting married.

The wedding apron contained a small patch of blue fabric, which Hill said she suspected was connected to the old saying “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue” that is applied to a bride’s attire on her wedding day.

Hill said she did not know what was old, new or borrowed on the wedding apron.