Some people say that the kitchen apron has not always been popular as a collectible in its own right, but don’t tell that to the members of the Meramec Valley Genealogical and Historical Society (MVGHS).
“My mother and grandmother always wore aprons,” Therissa Schlemper told fellow genealogy society members at their Nov. 16 meeting.
“Some were fancier than others,” she said.
Thus began a half-hour seminar on a garment familiar to almost everyone as the protector of mother’s housedress as she ran the house and kitchen.
Schlemper, wife of a century farmer and a housewife who canned her own vegetables throughout her life, came from a line of seamstresses who made and wore aprons.
One by one, she unfolded 21 items, including aprons sewn and worn by her grandmother, mother and herself from early childhood through adulthood. The presentation included a crocheted apron, four-handkerchief aprons, apron patterns, children’s aprons, baby bibs and potholders. All were home sewn, some by hand, neatly pressed and folded.
For centuries the apron was the uniform of the homemaker, now relegated to vintage magazine pages and photographs in family albums, but to local genealogy society members the humble apron is still recognized as a symbol of family history.
The tribute to the apron was generated by an anonymous email message that appeared in a 2005 newsletter from the Brown County Genealogical Society in Hiawatha, Kan. Ruth Muehler, society vice president, brought the newsletter home for a family history search.
Members of the society were then asked in their newsletter to bring family aprons to the Nov. 16 meeting. Once the business portion of the meeting was concluded, Schlemper introduced the show and tell-segment, which recounts a part of local history.
“I keep them in a drawer,” Schlemper said. “That’s why there are papers are all over my house.”
Looking back to a century that saw produce from the kitchen garden available at the supermarket and the wood cookstove replaced by microwave ovens, society members relived the romance of Grandma’s apron, a symbol of family times together.
“Women had to do so much by hand,” Schlemper said. “I think what made the apron obsolete was when women started wearing pants.”
“Textiles are among the most forgotten or lost historical items,” said Sue Reed, local history writer.
Being the guardian and caretaker of home and hearth was respected work, Reed said. And that’s why the woman doing the work created her “uniform.” In this sense, aprons are really textile folk art, she said.
The apron also was a social item, Reed noted. When other female friends and family arrived in the kitchen to help prepare or serve a meal they were invited to choose an apron from the apron drawer.
“They bring back personal memories of moments we can never forget,” said Patricia Sewell, MVGHS president.
Sewell unfolded a see-through pink lace apron with flowers stitched on for pockets. The beautiful apron was one of the first things she made as a gift for her mother, which her mother kept in a drawer because it was too fancy for work. One Christmas, Sewell went to the drawer, took out the apron and tied it around her mother’s waist.
“The first thing she did was to walk up to the stove and burn a hole in it,” Sewell said, poking her finger through the hole. Sewell keeps the treasured apron as a reminder of great meals.
Janet Daniel unfolded a neatly pressed, white butcher-style apron with two large pockets that was obviously too large for her. The ancient cover-up was what her Grandmother George wore when she ran the former George’s Orchard in Villa Ridge.
Daniel displayed a family album with a vintage magazine page depicting George’s Orchard with Grandma George wearing the apron. The much-worn garment was destined for the trash heap until Janet rescued it, laundered it and put in a drawer.
“Nobody knew I kept it,” she said.
Katie Branson also took a grittier look at the apron, as a cultural icon. She unfolded a huge dark green cover-up apron that swallowed her tiny frame. She had made it, she said, for her sons when they took shop classes in high school. The dark green butcher’s style apron still bore the stains from many industrial arts classes.
“They all wore it,” she said.
Branson read aloud one of her familiar poems, an eight-stanza tribute to the aprons worn by her mother Mary Elizabeth Alexander Thornton.
“Look at that dirty old rag. What is it doing here? It is a symbol of a farmer’s wife, worn out in a gone-by year.
“It arrived brand new and fresh. The design was easy to see. The useful garment, the apron, once prized by all ladies.
“It covered the everyday shirtwaist. It covered the meeting dress too. It tied around the middle, very serviceable, all too true.
“It served as a hand protector whether lifting a pot or a trowel, it dried the hands so often one might think it was a towel.
“Often it was a handkerchief drying tears or cleaning the nose. It often stopped the flow of blood when a knife slipped or from a broken bowl.
“It cradled eggs or chicks from a coop, or the fruit from a prolific vine. With the apron you could fan yourself in midlife or summertime.
“In the kitchen it caught the drops from the dishpan or sauce that splattered. The apron lost its newness. It was useful, that was all that mattered.
“Faded, like the memories, this apron, once new and bright, now ragged, no longer needed. Mother is robed in linen white.
The MVGHS meets the third Wednesday every other month at the Presbyterian Church service building to discuss its research into local history.