The Many Uses of an Apron
Any woman over the age of fifty will no doubt remember the sewing or needlework classes at school where the first project, after proving you knew how to do running and hemstitching, would be to make an apron for the cookery lessons that would start the following term. Various lengths of material, usually cotton, would be produced and handed out along with needles and reels of cotton. A simple paper pattern was shared out among the groups and the cutting out would begin. The raw edges would be folded over and tacked into place before being hemstitched (8 stitches to the inch was considered to be ideal) and finally a loop of white tape attached to the bib of the apron to go over the head and ties attached at either side to tie at the waist at the back. All very basic but nonetheless serviceable.
The apron today forms part of the uniform of some professions and occupations, butchers with their navy and white striped aprons, waitresses with the little broderie anglaise aprons that are more decorative than useful, farriers with leather aprons who now seems to favour leather chaps so that only the older ones appear in aprons and of course rubber aprons were used years ago by dentists while pulling teeth!
Aprons , the word is derived from the old French 'naperon' meaning a napkin or small tablecoth, were first worn by men in the 12 - 13th centuries as protective garments. By the 16th and 17th centuries a man's trade was denoted by the colour of his apron - English barbers wore checked ones, butchers and porters green, and masons white. In the 19th century a cook would only turn her apron once before washing it as any more and the stains could not be hidden. By 1930 aprons became things of beauty, colourful prints and bright sashes were in vogue and the apron would be edged with pleats or contrasting bias binding. A pocket, often heart shaped would be attached and by 1940 the half apron became popular followed in the Fifties by the plastic apron.
From the sixties onwards the use of aprons began to decline and today they are seldom seen in use except perhaps among older women. It was customary to have different aprons for different chores starting in the morning with a so called coarse apron, often made of sackcloth, which was worn when cleaning out the fire, lighting the copper for the washing or scrubbing the front step. I remember in one house we first settled in, which was a terraced house with an entry and shared yard and a toilet at the bottom of the garden, our neighbour who worked in the local pub which was owned by her mother, could be seen everyday around noon coming home from the pub with her coarse apron folded up at one corner and held in place there. We wondered why so one day my brother and I watched her go down the garden path towards the toilet and when she reached a patch of ferns near the toilet door a bottle of Guinness appeared from in the apron and was swiftly hidden in the ferns. She made several trips to the toilet that afternoon! After the dirty chores were done the apron would be changed to a clean one for the preparation of the food for the main meal and if it were a baking day then a white apron would be worn. I imagine that the decline in the use of aprons may be attributed to the rise in convenience foods and of course the use of washing machines and central heating.
To me the following passage captures the real use of aprons, I do not know the author but I guess they had a childhood similar to many of us over 60 years of age. Please enjoy it:
I don't think our kids know what an apron is.The principal use of Grandma's apron was to protect the dress underneath because she only had a few. It was also easier to wash aprons than dresses and aprons used less material. But along with that it served a a potholder for removing hot pans from the oven.
It was wonderful for drying children's tears and on occasions was even used for cleaning out dirty ears.
From the chicken coop , the apron was used for carrying eggs, fussy chicks and sometimes half hatched eggs to be finished in the warming oven.
When company came, those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids. When the weather was cold Grandma wrapped it round her arms.
Those big , old aprons wiped many a perspiring brow, bent over the hot wood stove.
Chips and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron.
From the garden it carried all sorts of vegetables.When the peas had been shelled it carried out the hulls.
In the autumn the apron was used to bring in the apples that fallen from the trees.
When unexpected company drove up the road, it was surprising how much furniture that old apron could dust in a matter of seconds.
When dinner was ready, Grandma walked out on to the porch, waved her apron and the men folk knew it was time to come in from the fields for dinner.
It will be a long time before someone invents something that will replace that 'old-time apron' that served so many purposes.
Grandma used to set her hot baked apple pies on the windowsill to cool. Her granddaughters set theirs on the window sill to thaw. They would go crazy now trying to figure out how many germs were on that apron! I don't think I ever caught anything from that apron but love.....