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    

Original * Vintage Nurse Or Student Nurse Uniform * With Apron & Cuffs * 1940sVintage Barbie 1960's Shoes And Accessories Lot Dresses ApronArt Deco Handmade Embroidered Kitchen Apron Linen SewingTintype, Vintage Photo,occupational,man, Tongs, Dirty ApronDarling Harajuku Mini Apron Dress, 9m. Vintage Look. Euc.Lot Of 5 Vintage Bib Advertising Aprons Godchaux Dole Coke Calvert Campbell'sVintage Sheer Sexy Valentine Heart Half Apron Lot Of 8 Excellent ConditionNdebele Married Woman's Apron (old/antique/vintage/bead)Vintage Antique Bib Apron Victorian Edwardian Hand Embroidered Wide H Back CutePlus Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Birthday Party Gift Polka Dot Berry Red 37"wVintage Lot Of Hand Made Aprons 4 Total, 1 ChickenscratchLot Of 3 Vintage Full Bib Aprons Blue Floral & Red Squirrel PrintVintage Full Blue Floral Apron Homemade57 Lot Vintage Child Tin Kitchen Baking Cake Pans Jello Mold Apron Kids SingleVintage Handcrafted Red & White Gingham Pinafore Apron W/ Heart Pocket/rufflesVintage Nba Golden State Warriors Apron Sleepy Floyd Jersey Basketball Oven MittVintage Sheer Nylon Floral Half Apron With Hankies In PocketsVintage W.h. Kneas Lumber Company, Norristown, Pa. Work ApronHandmade Vintage Seminole Patchwork Apron, Native American, Florida, Oklahoma 4 Vintage Antique Skirt Half Aprons Fancy Gingham Chicken Scratch Rick Rack LotLot Of 6 Vintage Gingham Cross Stitch Chicken Scratch Embroidered Half ApronsVintage 40s Embroidered Linen Bib Apron, Flower BasketVintage Antique Skirt Apron Tinted Embroidered Floral Design 1940s Era Estate 2 Vintage White Party Aprons, Heart Shape Pockets/lace, Valentines, 1950'sVintage Apron Lot *5 Beautiful Old Aprons Hand Made Embroidery Lace Quilted*Vintage Black Memorabilia Apron ~mammy~hand Appliqued~mint UnusedFootjoy Vintage Brown Leather Raised Apron Penny Loafers *size 10 E*Lot Of 8 Vintage Aprons-gingham Tafetta Rik-rak Tulle Sheer Crossstitch AppliqueLot Of 7 1940s, 1950s And 1960s Vintage Aprons Vintage 1940s Printed Full Bib Apron Green Check W/ Roosters Chickens Hearts EtcLot Of 5 Vintage Advertising Flour Bread Aprons Old Gold Crown Red Star Junge'sVintage Orange Crush Advertising Apron Pouch4 Vintage Antique Skirt Half Aprons Fancy Sheer Lot 1940s Era Estate FindVintage 6 Kitchen Aprons Waist Ties Lace Applique Embroidery Bows Crewel OwlVintage Long White Apron - Waist & Neck TiesVintage Women Cooking Kitchen Ladies Cute Bib Apron Dress Maid With Pocket B&rVintage Stamped Cross Stitch Kit Progress Wreath Christmas Apron 1270 New NipVintage Half Apron Orange Print With Rickrack & Keyhole PocketsVintage Half Apron Black & White Gingham Cross Stitching Good Condition Estate Lot Of 7 Vintage Cotton And Satin Half ApronsHoward Johnson Hojo Vintage Apron UniformVintage White Apron Full Bib Apron With Cutwork And LaceOld Vtg 1970's Country Festival By Corning Cotton Apron Womens Homemaker 2pocketLot Of 3 Vintage Hand Made Full Bib Aprons * Very NiceVintage Bib Apron Full Size Pattern 1920s Flapper Style Fabric Craft ProjectVintage Handcrafted Turquoise & Gold Floral Print Pinafore ApronVintage 1970s Nwt Full Pink Blue Xl Women Kitchen Apron Woolworths Cotton/polyVintage Aprons Lot Of 5Vintage Bib Apron Navy White Stripe Applique StrawberriesBib Apron W Kansas State Seal Flour Design Vintage Lot Of 3 Hand Made Aprons Vintage, Handmade, Waist Tie Apron, White And Blue With Printed Design & PocketsVintage Japanese Denim Indigo Apron Maekake Handmade M-xl Bib Apron Flower Power Valentine Love Dot Flounce Retro Vintage 2pc Vintage~retro 1950's Fruit Terry Dry Dish Towel Poodle Apron & Pot HolderVintage Sesame Street Big Bird Apron Dress Sears Size 4 Girls Child Super CuteHandmd Bib Apron-plus Sz-crisscross Vintage-pink John Deere-valentine Gift-retroVintage 1950's Tru Scale Grain Combine - Original Cloth Apron - All OriginalVintage Lot Of 2 Dutch Black Blue Half Aprons With 4 Matching Potholders Look!B Vintage White Cotton Early Apron With Girly Embroidery Lace And Ribbons