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]

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 Pleasant Company Kirsten's Apron DressVintage Girl Scout/brownie Headbands Gloves Dress Apron Linens Purse And OthersLot Of 15 Vintage Aprons Half Bib Smock & Holiday-estateLot Of 9 Vintage ApronsLot Of 15 Vintage ApronsGirls Vintage 60s Kitsch Sooty & Sweep Apron Pinny Overall 1-2yrsVtg French Indigo Blue Cotton Work Chore ApronVintage Cotton Print Bib Apron Red Binding Trim/60" Tie-to-tie & 28" LongVtg Handmade Apple Print Apron Dress - Note Flaws - Size 3tVintage Bib Apron Blue And Green Flowers Job-lot 7 Vintage 50s Kitsch Apron Pinny 1-2-3-4yrs Sooty & Sweep, Nursery RhymeVintage Star Wars Action Figure Ugnaught W/ Purple Apron CompleteVintage Star Wars Action Figure Ugnaught W/ Blue Apron CompleteLot#48 Ugnaught Purple Apron Nm |vintage Star Wars Esb Kenner Weapon/accessoriesVtg Fall Plaid Dress W/reversible Side Ties Apron - Size 12 MonthsSourpuss Clothing Housewares -black Cats Apron & Tea Towel Set Vintage HalloweenVintage Linen Knotts Berry Farm Souvenir Apron--rare!27 Vintage Aprons Bib,half, Gingham, Christmas, Pockets, Cutter Craft LotPleasant Company Kirsten's Apron Dress & Daisy Wreath (vintage 1990 Edition)Vintage Bib Apron Red Cream Feedsack FabricJanie And Jack Peach Apron Poppies Floral Dress 18-24 Months !!vintage Style!!Vintage 1950's Pink Apron Place Matt & Napkin Set Of 4 Kitchen Theme In Vguc1950s Cotton Print Christmas Apron Complete With Sequins, Glass OrnamentsLot Of 19 Vtg Half And Full/bib/smock 1/2 Aprons-gingham-cotton-nylon-floral EtcVintage World War Ii Embroidered Satin Ladies Kitchen Apron - E Pluribus UnimLot Of 7 Vintage Aprons Gingham Chicken Scratch Rick Rack Full Half 50's/60's!Retro Woman Maid Apron Vintage Ruffle Pinafore Coffee Shop Kitchen HomewearHandmade Vtg Rockabilly Apron Skirt Red/white Gingham Check Ruffle Pin-up M VlvVintage Canvas Nail Apron Advertising For Foster Lumber Company29 Pce. Lot Assorted Vintage ApronsVintage 1915 Masonic Temple Freemasons Apron * Sheepskin! * Original~not PerfectVintage Baby Girl Dress With Apron Ivory W/yellow Stripes & Lace -size 2-Vtg Bryan Floral Fall Dress W/attached Front Apron - Size 4Vintage Yellowstone National Park Souvenir Apron Very Nice!Vintage Carpenter's Apron Upson Board L.l. Ensworth & Son Hartford, Conn.Vintage Apron Sewing Pattern Apple Pickin' Gardener Clothespin Tomato Garden Vintage 60s Barbie-mitzi-tressy-clone Green/white Checkered Sheath Dress & ApronVintage Barbie Blue Apron & Utensils Adorable Vintage Half Apron With PoppiesVintage Apron Kitten Print Cotton White With Gray & PinkHand Appliqued Vintage Half Apron~ Scalloped Edges ~ True VintageVintage New Sears Craftsman Carpenter's Apron,canvas Worker's Construction UsaVintage Women Men Apron Kitchen Restaurant Bib Cooking Aprons With 2 PocketsVery Large Crate & Barrel Chef's Apron & Towel, 100% Linen Pig Theme Vintage-style Bib Apron**good Eats Cafe**homemade Pie**shakes**chili**Vintage Bib Apron Coffee Pots/baskets/ Etc New Vintage/mid Century Style Bbq ApronPampered Chef Pink & Black Paisley "help Whip Cancer" Apron, RetiredGirls Vintage 60s Kitsch Sooty & Sweep Apron Pinny Overall 1-2yrs White SlvVintage 1950s Chef Grill B-b-q Full Bib Cookout Apron-genius At Work Fathers Day2 Vtg Nwot Half Aprons Orange ~ Flower Power TerryclothVintage Small Light Cotton Print Half Apron/60" Tie-to-tie & 15" LongCarbone's Apron Crabtree, Pa Great Condition Made In U.s.a.New Women Vintage Lace Apron Princess Kitchen Floral Pocket Cooking Apron DressVintage Sunshine Yellow Orange Cross Stitch Half ApronLady Floral Lacy Vintage Apron Home Chef Kitchen Pocket Cooking Apron Dress HotPorsche Stuttgart Car Apron Vintage Bbq Chef Bar B Que Authentic Vintage Kirdi Beaded Shell Cache Sexe Apron Cameroon AfricaVintage 40's Smock Apron Home MadeVintage 1940s Union Milk Dairy Apron Great Shape Work Wear Canvas Denim Vtg