A cloth, or piece of leather, worn on the fore part of the body, to keep the clothes clean, or defend them from injury. — Webster, 1882
An Apron Party. The older children had a very unique party at Mrs. James Cooley’s Wednesday evening. Each girl took a white apron all made except the hemming. The boys were then blindfolded and each drew an apron, which they proceeded to hem. Elmer Robinson was voted the first prize, a hand painted photograph frame, for the neatest job done; while Raymond Mason took second prize, a card game. After the work was completed, ice-cream and cake was served. The children went home declaring it the very best time they had ever had. – January 1, 1897, Kingsbury County Independent
Anyone who works about the house cleaning or cooking has probably needed an apron at some point or another, whether they wore one or not! In the days before dry cleaners or automatic washing machines and clothes dryers, it was much harder work to launder one’s clothes, so an apron was worn to protect them from splashing dirty dishwater, cooking spatters, soil smudges when working in the garden, or even a carried baby’s dusty shoes or sticky hands. An apron could be made out of almost any material and be plain or fancy, large or small. At the New England Supper in Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 19, “The Whirl of Gaiety”), Ida tells Laura to pin a towel – probably a dish towel – over her dress to protect it, since Laura hadn’t brought an apron and had volunteered to help Ida with the dish-washing. In These Happy Golden Years (see Chapter 2, “The First Day of School”), Laura tells Mrs. Brewster that she likes a “real big apron that covers [her] whole dress.”
The apron at right belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder (Was it also made by Laura? I don’t know!) and is often on display in the Rock House kitchen at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri. Such aprons were worn by a 1940s or ’50s hostess when company was present, and served more to show off a woman’s needlework talent than to offer any protection.
The most common apron mentioned in the Little House books is the kitchen apron, everyday farm-wear for Ma and the girls. According to Ward and Locke’s 1882 Home Book (page 775), the kitchen apron was made of especially strong cotton or linen, at least a yard in length and hemmed at the lower end. They generally had a band and tied around the waist, but could also be pleated at the waist with a wide tape double-sewn on the inside of the apron, with long ends left of the tape and used as the strings with which to tie the apron. In order to make a very large kitchen apron, two widths of material were sewn together so the seam was down the center of one width. It was gathered and wrapped with a waistband, leaving long ends for a tie, sewn double for added strength. A rectangular bib was added with long braces (made in the same fashion as the tie ends) sewn to each shoulder and of sufficient length so that they could be crossed over the back and buttoned to the apron at each side of the waistband.
In Harvey Dunn’s painting, After School (a portion is shown above), the little girl is wearing a bibbed apron. Note the schoolhouse in the background; it is the one near Manchester that Dunn attended as a child, now restored and part of De Smet’s Depot Museum complex.
Next time you visit one of the homesite museums, look for various aprons on display or in brightly-colored calico aprons the gift shops for purchase!
A Word About Aprons. School-room aprons in brown holland are made with pockets, a bib, and shoulder straps to cross and fasten at the back; red or white braid. House-keepers’ aprons are made long and turned up to form a deep pocket; this pocket is stitched in the center, and so forms two pockets. One small pocket is placed in the center above the deep ones, just where a pocket is on an ordinary apron. Colored braid should be stitched on. These are often called ladies’ maids’ aprons, and also ladies’ gardening aprons, and are most useful. White muslin ones for morning house wear are very fashionable now, with a bib. They are generally made in spotted or figured muslin, with a deep hem all around, and a frill of patent lace. They are about thirty inches long and thirty inches wide, are gathered into a band, and have two square pockets. The big is made separately, and sewn on, so that it can be removed at will. It is wider at the top than at the waist, and should be six inches high and about eight at the top, all edged with lace. As these aprons are wide, and require to be kept back well, wide strings of muslin or ribbon are sewn half-way down, and these tie over the dress. Sometimes the dress is arranged in a sort of little puff at the back, and the strings keep it up by means of a guarded pin, and tie below. These aprons came be made in silk (black satin with black lace being particularly fashionable just now), brocade (also much worn, often for five o’clock tea), or in white, thick, cross-bar muslin, or brown holland. Then there are lawn-tennis holland and crash aprons, with embroidered flowers on them, which are always popular. Those in navy-blue sheeting, with cornflowers, poppies, and corn worked on in crewel stitch, are most effective. They are about ten or twelve inches long, and about eight or nine deep, and are made in the form of a large envelope, without the flap. They have a band attached to them, about one and a half inches wide, which passes loosely around the waist, and buttons on one side. Gentlemen use them much, and they can be varied and made very attractive. No lining is required. They are quickly made, and can be merely bound with braid. Smaller muslin aprons, with a plaiting of pale blue or pink satin ribbon, about four inches wide, covered with a flounce of lace same width, look very pretty. [Note: Holland is a plain-woven or dull-finish linen or a cotton fabric made more or less opaque by a glazed or unglazed finish (called the Holland finish).] — Peterson’s Magazine, Vol. LXXV, No. 6, June 1870, 480.
Men Wore Aprons, Too! It wasn’t just girls and women who wore aprons to protect their clothes. In Farmer Boy, Father Wilder’s barn jumper was a type of apron since it protected his clothes.
Laura Ingalls Wilder specifically mentions the leather aprons worn by cobblers and blacksmiths, although cobblers also wore pocketed aprons made of cloth. Leather was important for a blacksmith’s apron, as sparks could ignite clothing. The leather apron was usually just a large piece of tanned hide that was placed across the wearer’s front, then belted around the waist, allowing a bit to fold over the belt to keep it from slipping off. In the photo shown above, note that the blacksmiths’ leather aprons are shaped slightly to cover the legs while allowing for ease of movement.
Male butchers, grocers, waiters, and other storekeepers may have worn a cloth apron, either with a bib to protect the shirtfront, or without, as a long rectangle tied around the waist. Mr. Hopp at the newspaper office definitely wore one to keep ink and newsprint stains off his clothes.
apron (BW 1, 4, 9; FB 2, 11, 12, 21, 23, 26; LHP 12, 15; BPC 12, 17, 20, 28; SSL 12, 19, 2, 23; TLW 3, 21; LTP 5, 7, 9, 16, 17, 19; THGY 1, 2, 19, 20, 29, 33; PG)
leather (FB 23 cobbler; BPC 20 blacksmith)
storm (THGY 29) – A piece of leather, or other thing, to be spread before a person riding in a gig, chaise, or sulky, to defend him from the rain, snow, or dust; see storm apron