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The Personal History of a Household Apron

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Apron - Dancing-girl-Levitsky-Dmitry-G.-1735-1822

Dancing Girl, Levitsky Dmitry, 1735-1822

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 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 the photo to the left, their main purpose has never been lost:  To carry out every imaginable chore in and around the homestead.

My paternal grandparents, the Herrings, were a generation older than my maternal grandparents, the Kuhns, though my parents were born in the same year; the former grandparents had lost several children before my father came along when they were in their 40s.  They were Kansas pioneer farmers, my grandmother (nee Higbee) heading west in a covered wagon with her parents as a baby; she grew up on the prairies of Kansas, met my grandfather, and the rest is history.

Great-Grandmother Christine Aaroe-Higbee's Parents, from Denmark, ca 1890

The Aaroes, immigrants from Denmark, taken ca 1890.

Grandma Herring's Apron Quilt, Hand-Sewn between 1920 & 1970s

The Apron Quilt

Most of my childhood memories are of their 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 holiday events – and those are the times when photographs were taken, so unfortunately I don’t have a photo of her in aprons.  But I have something much better:  A hand-sewn quilt, made lovingly by her from around 1920 to the early 80s.  The materials used for that quilt are her old aprons, Sunday dress scraps, and other spare cloths; and I remember seeing her in several of them.  The old photograph above is of my great-great grandparents, the Aaroes, immigrants from Denmark; the photo was taken around 1890, and shows my great-great grandmother in her daily apron at the spinning wheel.

1950s Housewife Chic vintage aprons

1950s Vintage Fashionable Aprons

Being a farmer’s wife, my grandmother’s aprons weren’t as fancy as these vintage patterns; 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.  They carried chicks, chicken eggs, kittens, flowers, herbs, 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 that, but it was being used to cradle a large mason jar of ice cold water, the best thirst-quencher I know). Those aprons helped gather grains, and stones to move from the garden or to the flower bed.  They carried chicken feed, broken eggs shells, potatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, sweet peas, strawberries and squash.  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.

I can’t imagine any other piece of cloth carrying so much history, authority, importance, humility, common sense and love.

The Bygone Rural Wish Lists: Montgomery Ward Catalogue

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1934 Christmas catalogue from Montgomery Ward 12

Back in the days before internet was even a twinkle in the eyes of a Star Trek script writer and television wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye but an inventor’s, and regional economies were largely either agriculturally- or industrially-based, people out in the rural parts of America contented themselves with a rare trip to “the big city” (which might have been a one-horse town, but was big compared to isolated farm life) for basic and limited supplies.  But in 1872 that began to change, when Aaron Montgomery Ward conceived of a mail-order business for dry-goods.  Gradually, as his business grew and survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 (which consumed his first inventory), and survived the attacks of small-town stores who’d had a monopoly on customers, the concept became popular.  Extremely popular, to the tune of 3 million catalogues of ~4 lbs. each by 1904 (not bad, considering the first “catalogue” was a one-sheet price list).  You could order everything imaginable, including a complete DIY house kit and live animals.

My father’s parents, born 1899 & 1901, were Kansas farmers (my father was born 1941); I remember the “Monkey Ward” catalogues stacked up with their rival company, Sears, Roebuck & Co, on a small wooden table in the living room of their farm house.  What didn’t get ordered got used as kindling for the cast-iron potbelly stove.  The illustration above is a page from a 1934 catalogue; I know from stories that my grandmother ordered chicks like this on more than one occasion.  Honestly I couldn’t tell you more than Longhorns as far as chicken breeds go; and there were no less than eight breeds offered through the catalogue.  Back then you paid $1.90 for 25 live chicks to be delivered; now (here in Switzerland, anyway) we pay $6.50 for 12 eggs.  Times have changed!

Here are a few more photos from the 1934 catalogue for your edutainment.

1934 Christmas catalogue from Montgomery Ward 2 1934 Christmas catalogue from Montgomery Ward 5 1934 Christmas catalogue from Montgomery Ward 8 1934 Christmas catalogue from Montgomery Ward 9 1934 Christmas catalogue from Montgomery Ward 11

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