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]

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]

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]

Sensibility Vintage Images

Sensibility Vintage Images

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

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Masonic Vesta Match Safe Pat.1904 Mason Emblem Symbol Tool Apron Bible Vintage Lot Of 12 Colorful Half Aprons ~ Christmas Hostess Sheer ~ Nice Variety Vintage Japanese Indigo Cotton Maekake Miso Shop Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiTradesmans Apron / Cotton Maekake / Kikkoman / Japanese / Vintage UnusedVintage Farrier Blacksmith Leather Apron Chaps Welder Express Tool Co.Vintage Masonic Past Master Apron - Hand Embroidered - Ihling Bros Everard Co NrVintage Apron Lot. 21 Aprons. 1960's Vintage Mattel Mrs.beasley Bib-apron Set / Pull Ring 3 Pcs.tlc PartsVintage Hamm's Beer "distributed By Stoffel Beverage" Nail Apron, 8" X 16"Antique Vtg Tambour Net Lace Veil Mantilla Dress Panel Apron Leaf FlowerVintage Farm House Handmade Apron Full Length 35"Cute Vtg Yellow & Brown Full Bib Apron W Applique & Ric RacVintage Worn Out Japanese Farmer Assn Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiVintage Worn Out Japanese Farmer Shop Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiVintage Handmade Bib Apron White W Red Print Red Trim Pocket 1940’sVintage Souvenir Of Flroida Cotton Apron Organdy Large Pocket Looks Unused Free!Vintage Lot 24 Aprons Assorted Fabrics Colors 1/2 ApronsVtg/antique 1930/40s Cotton Print Quilt/apron Feedsack? Fabric Blue Floral 5 Yds11 Vintage Hand Crocheted Potholders Dresses Apron Undies Rounds DiamondsLot Of 6 Vintage Estate Kitchen Aprons ~ Half~ Embroidered~dainty ~ Nice VarietyRed White Gingham Cherry Ruffle Handmade Retro Vintage Style Plus Bib ApronVintage 50's Cherry Apron Summer Fruit Cherries Red Rick Rack Retro Fab!Vintage 1950's Tel-art Handpainted Mexico Village Full "apron" SkirtLot Vtg Linens To Embroidery ~ Apron, Tablecloths, Pillowcases, PicturesVintage Gingham Apron Chicken ScratchRegular Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Bridal Birthday Gift Crisscross Blue 28wVintage White Very Sheer Apron With Lace2 Vintage (1) Turquoise (1) Orange Gingham Half Apron Cross Stitch (handmade)Vintage White Ceramic Cow Head - Towel/apron Holder - Wall Mount - Yellow EyesVintage Advertising Apron Liberty Ready - Cut Homes, Lewis Mfg. Co. Bay City, MiVintage Long Full Bib Apron Pinafore Mid Century ExcellentVintage Flowered Full ApronVintage Cottonblend Queen For The Day Apron Estate Lot Of 7 Vintage Half Aprons Calico Gingham Floral Sheer Eyelet Ric Rac + Vintage Green & Pink Handmade Tiny Print Half ApronCute Vintage Apron Patchwork Look Pocket Back Tie Retro Mid Century Hand Made1960s Vintage Barbie Separates Apron W/utensils, Rolling Pin And Pot HolderVintage 1940s Mail Order Apron Sewing Pattern Sz Med Piece Checked Complete 2841Vintage Full Flowered ApronLot Of 10 Vintage Aprons, Half & Full - #4Vintage Cotton Embroidered Cat Darning Half Apron Vintage Mid Century California Map Apron Tied Around Waist Vintage Cotton Bib Apron Blue & Green With Blue, Green & White Flower Print Baker Lumber Company Carpenter's Nail Apron Phone Whi.433 Antique VintageVintage Applebee's Restaurant Apron Waitress Server Attire Polo 2 Uniform LotLot Of 4 Vintage Half Aprons Hand Made Cute Fabric Print!Vtg/antique 1930/40s Cotton Print Quilt/apron Feedsack? Fabric Lime Green 3+ YdsHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-peace Love Flower Power Pink Dot Ruffle-retro-vintageVintage Pink Very Sheer Apron With Lace Giraffe Print Accent Pillows With Tan And Creme ColorQuiltsdebbie Wonderful Ladies Antique Unused 1940s Green Country Pegrack ApronLot Of 9 Vintage Aprons 3 Full Bib Floral & 6 Half Aprons Floral Check Crochet Apron Desined By Bob Mackie Rooster Pattern Red, Green And Gold ColorsVintage Gingham Full ApronVintage Aprons - Knitted - Christmas Hand Fashioned By Patricia Lot Of 6Vintage Handmade Bib Apron Cream W Orange Brown Print Trim Pocket 1940’sStar Wars Vintage Original Kenner Bespin Cloud City Ugnaught ~ Purple ApronVintage 60's 70's Terry Cloth Half Apron With Bright Yellow & VegetablesVtg 1960s Retro Mod Apron Kit ~ Flock Of Fun Birds ~ Make An Apron KitVintage Sheet Music "tie Me To Your Apron Strings Again" (belle Hawley) 1925