Dr. Seuss’s 1971 children's book “The Lorax” describes a mass-produced garment called a Thneed: “A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need! It's a shirt. It's a sock. It's a glove. It's a hat. But it has OTHER uses. Yes, far beyond that.” While "Lorax" was a screed against factory owners destroying the environment to pump out useless products, the Thneed has something in common with homemade vintage aprons: these pieces of fabric were remarkably versatile, used as coverings, bags, towels, and general kitchen tools.

Vintage apron connoisseurs like to say the first aprons appeared with the first humans. When Adam and Eve took a bite of fruit from the Tree of Life and became aware of their own nakedness, they fashioned fig-leaf aprons. And while we think of aprons as feminine and motherly things, aprons have a long history of use outside the home, starting as early as the 10th century, particularly in manly professions like blacksmithing, glass working, welding, carpentry, and butchery. These craftsmen wore aprons made of heavy canvas or leather to protect their bodies from scalding heat and sharp tools. Today, even newer professions like X-ray technicians and chemists require similarly protective aprons.

In the kitchen, cook’s aprons were made of lighter materials. In the 18th century, most people owned two or three pairs of clothes at most, as fabric and textiles were expensive. For example, a woman might only have one or two dresses. An apron, usually made out of scraps, was smaller and easier to wash than a dress, and served to protect clothes from ingredients spilling and splattering. Fabric aprons also became a standard part of maid’s clothing, to keep the grime of cleaning off their uniforms.

For pioneer women managing the household chores on farms, aprons were much more than simply outer garments; they were tools. They would be used as carry-alls, to bring in fruits and vegetables from the garden, eggs from the henhouse, and logs from the woodpile. In the kitchen, the apron was also a potholder, to protect her hands when she removed pans from the oven or stove top.

An apron was also an all-purpose towel, to pat a brow that was sweaty from standing over a wood-burning stove, to wipe hands clean of flour and cooking mess, to dry a crying child’s tears, to wash dirty faces, and to dust household furniture. The apron could also be used as a flag to signal to the men working the fields that dinner was ready. Little girls following in their mother’s footsteps, would have pinafores over their dresses, which allowed them to help with the chores in a similar manner. Shy little kids could hide behind mom’s apron when company arrived.

And so, before the 20th century, aprons were more about functionality than fashion. Plain and white, they usually went down to a woman’s ankles. They were often made out of flour and feedsacks—in fact, in the 1930s and 1940s, apron patterns were often printed on bags of flour or feed.

In the 1920s, though, women began to give their aprons personal touches, crafting full-length aprons out of more attractive fabrics, with printed, dyed, or embroidered patterns. Suddenly, aprons had a bit of fashion. Still, aprons in the 1940s were solidly practical devices meant to protect clothing—valuable in an age of rationing—and were usually made of cotton in the style of full-length cobbler’s bibs...

The prosperous '50s was the decade when frilly, girlie aprons flourished. The availability of fabrics, particularly new, synthetic ones, as well as the use of appliances like washing machines and dryers that made household chores easier, allowed aprons to join the ranks of frivolous fashion.

The basic style became a pocketed piece of cloth that tied around the waist and only covered the lap. Housewives would use a practical apron in the kitchen, and then, before dinner guests arrived, replace it with a delicate chiffon or organdy apron that might be a little transparent and strangely sexy, meant purely for show.

Television shows introduced the world to a parade of idealized housewives and mothers like Donna Reed and June Cleaver. These shows had a tremendous influence on apron fashions, and the kind of apron patterns women bought. Others sewed a whole variety of aprons in patterns and colors embellished with ribbons, ruffles, or embroidery. During the '60s, aprons had bright colors and polka dots to reflect cheerful Mid-century Modern kitchens.

By the 1970s, however, aprons were seen in some quarters as a symbol of women’s oppression, and so they fell out of fashion. In the post women’s-lib era, stores began to offer unisex aprons with slogans about barbecuing or phrases like “Kiss the Cook.” Souvenir aprons were printed with state maps that could be collected as one traveled the country.

It’s only recently that haute-couture designers like Betsey Johnson and Pierre Cardin have started to offer patterns for aprons, and vintage aprons are becoming collectible. While they aren’t too hard to find, you can imagine that a good percentage of all vintage aprons were just cut up and used as rags.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Flickr Vintage Aprons

Flickr Vintage Aprons

This Flickr photo pool, moderated by Amy Karol, showcases over 1000 vintage aprons from various personal collection… [read review or visit site]

Feeding America

Feeding America

This archive of 76 influential American cookbooks from the late 1700s to early 1900s, assembled by the Michigan St… [read review or visit site]

Sewing Machine Collector

Sewing Machine Collector

Geoff and Norma Dickens' reference site on vintage toy sewing machines from the late 1800s. Browse the images alpha… [read review or visit site]

Tupper Diva

Tupper Diva

Kristian McManus’ fresh, airtight collection of Tupperware catalogs and related ephemera from the 1950s and 6… [read review or visit site]

Sense & Sensibility Patterns

Sense & Sensibility Patterns

An extensive collection of photos and ephemera illustrating changing fashion styles from 1795 to 1959. Includes por… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Winchester Store Canvas Carpenters Full Bib Apron Tool Nails PencilsVintage Kenner Star Wars Cloth Lot Capes Cloaks Coats Skirt Apron Etc 1977-1983Rare Vintage Hermes Nautical Cotton Canvas Apron Yacht Sailing Denim Gold LinksVintage Xl Heavy Leather Industrial Welding Jacket & Apron1985 Vintage Masonic-royal-arch-past-high-priest-php-apron-hand-embroidered Vintage Antique Bib Apron 1940s Hand Made Feedsack Red Trim Pink Floral PrintVintage 1950s Child's Pinafore Apron Novelty Bunny Print Fabric Red Ric Rac TrimVtg - Lilac Frilly Faux Pinafore/apron Easter Dress - Size 2tLot Of 6 Vintage Ladies Cotton Half Aprons Green Print Gingham Chicken Scratch4 Half Aprons Vintage Handmade From Feed Sacks UsedVintage Embroidered Flowers, Butterfly, Victorian Lady Pink Bib Apron *nice*New Full Apron, White With Battenburg LaceVintage Apron Smock Red Gingham Checks Plaid 100% Cotton - Nice! Handmade Vintage Gingham Apron Embroidered TulipsVintage French Indigo Blue Cotton Work Chore ApronLot Of 4 Vintage Aprons, Incl. 3 Bib Aprons And 1 Waist Apron - A11Vintage Watermelon Print Cotton ApronPretty Vintage Child's Blue With Pink Roses ApronRare Vtg 1990s Sun Microsystems Blue Thick Denim 3 Pocket Apron Made In UsaHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-criss Cross Back Vintage- Kitchen Utensils Cook-retroVintage Toddler Girl Pastel Stripe Pinafore Apron Dress Bloomers Sunsuit OpenVintage Size 3t Toddler Apron Dress EucVintage Green Bay Lumber Co. Canvas Hardware Store Lumber Yard Nail Apron Plus 4Vtg Antique Hand Stitched Apron Pinafore Floral Button Back Pocket As IsVintage White Ceramic Rooster Chicken Head Towel Apron Holder Wall Mount Vtg - Sylvia Whyte - Blue Stripe Apron Dress W/side Ties - Size 2t-3tGirls Size 6 Baylis Brothers Long Red Gingham Dress With Full Apron Cover Vtg Antique Vintage Carpentar Tool Apron Schwenksville Boyertown Pa. H.l.schmoyerLot Of 15 Vintage Half Aprons Sheer Christmas Reversible Flowers70s Vintage Soviet Russian Girl School Apron /usedVintage Cotton Apron6 Vintage Half ApronsVintage Apron Panel Turquoise Black Rick Rack Terrier Dog, Cut Sew Gingham PrintVintage 7 Aprons 6 Bib 3 White Eyelet Vintage Barbie Friday Night Date Apron Mint Vintage Wooden Stacking Girl In Apron Toy Made In UssrVtg Valentine Card Girl I'd Like To Tie You To My Apron Strings1959 Vintage Barbie- Barbie Q Outfit #962 White ApronVintage Hallmark Card Little Girl Pigtails Blue Apron Dress Bird Dandelion UnuseVintage Lot 5 Assort Gingham 1/2 Aprons Chicken Scratch Cross Stitch EmbroideryFunktion Vintage-style Full Apron With RufflesLot Of 6 Vintage Hand Crochet Aprons8 Handmade Half Aprons Vintage Good Condition Shades Of Pink Prints70s Vintage Soviet Russian Girl School Lace Apron /used Vintage Retro Half Apron Blue & Yellow Flowers & PocketVintage Nail Carpenters Apron Chadderdon Lumber & Building Fairbault MinnesotaVintage Snoopy And Woodstock Adult Apron-vinyl/ Cloth Backed-compliments To ChefVintage Mixed Design Hankerchiefs ( 10 ) Vintage Barbie Barbie Baby-sits Apron MintVintage Red And White Checker With Blue Floral Pattern ApronVintage Newsboy Apron Philadelphia Bulletin-newspaper Boys Of AmericaVintage 60s Girls Red German Dirndl Style Dress Ethnic Floral Woven Apron CostumMouse In Apron Vintage Pie Bird Funnel Vent Steamer Made In EnglandVintage Vera Neumann Pinafore Apron "canning Jars"Vintage Half Apron Vintage-style Bib Apron**tea Cups**coffee Cups**adult**homemadeVintage 1980 "popeye The Sailor Man" ApronGlittered Mother's Day Ornament~ Blue Checked Apron & Kittens~vintage Card ImageVintage 1930s Apron Printed Cotton Fruit Trellis Cherries Berries Bananas ApplesVintage Crochet Hand Emboider Apron Russell, Kansas