Fun Collectibles: Vintage Aprons

May 7, 2011 | 2011 Articles, Diana Bulls, Hometown History

by Diana Bulls

When we think of aprons the image we usually get in our minds is of a mom or grandma wearing one while they cook something up for the family–maybe that’s old fashioned but I think for most of us that’s still the first image that comes to mind. So it seemed appropriate to talk about aprons on Mother’s Day weekend! At the end of this article is a coupon for Valentino’s Italian Restaurant in Reedley-so print it out and take mom for a great Italian meal this week!

There was a time, not that long ago, when every woman wore an apron. If you are in your 40s or older, you probably remember your mother or grandmother wearing an apron. My grandma put her apron on as soon as she went in the kitchen and it remained on throughout the day’s chores, but she always took if off at 12:00 noon dinner. Grandma preferred a bib-style apron for everyday, but she had lots of fancy aprons for Sundays and special occasions.

The author’s grandmother wearing a long, bib apron (c. 1916).

In fact, that is why people started noticing vintage aprons as a potential collectible—there is such a huge variety of aprons available for collecting. From hand sewn and embroidered, cotton lawn or crocheted, cobbler or half aprons, or mass-produced souvenir aprons, there is something to appeal to everyone. Aprons seem to have gained popularity in the early 1990s; they are still reasonably priced and one doesn’t have to worry about reproductions!

Some of the very oldest collectible aprons were made during the Victorian era, including black mourning versions decorated with black lace and embroidery. During this time aprons were long so they could cover the long dresses women wore, and were generally pinned not tied. Since washers and dryers did not exist yet, everything had to be hand scrubbed, and the same clothes were often worn for several days. Aprons were necessary for keeping dresses clean. Aprons were popular handmade gifts, and young girls often used them to showcase their fine needle crafting skills. The oldest apron I have in my small collection belonged to one of my great-grandmothers and dates to the 1880s. It is made of fine cotton lawn, which is a kind of sheer material, and trimmed with cotton tatted lace. I doubt that this apron was ever used for cooking because it has no stains and remains in perfect condition.

Apron ladies: A group of ladies in a variety of practical bib aprons (c. 1940).

In fact, most women relied on two kinds of aprons. According to EllynAnne Geisel, author of The Apron Book, a housewife would always have something practical for cooking and cleaning, and then a fancier version for hostess duty. Some of these aprons will have delicate hand work and even appliqués or crocheted trims.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1940s, printed chicken-feed sacks, flour and sugar sacks doubled as fabric for aprons. The cotton cloth that made up these bags was durable enough to stand up to rough handling, yet pretty enough to be considered attractive. The older bag fabrics were plainer and mostly in solid colors, but by the 1930s and 1940s colorful patterns dominated feed sack designs. These aprons are somewhat harder to find because everything was used until it was completely worn out. Aprons would be cut into quilt pieces or end up as dust rags.

Bib-style aprons became popular around the turn of the century, although they were probably always used for the hired help, and continued to be the practical choice for many years. In fact I remember the first apron I ever made—a bib apron that was my first sewing project in 8th grade Home Economics back in 1959. The fabric I picked was covered in Japanese lanterns in red, green, blue and yellow and I used red bias tape to finish off the edges. I have no clue whatever happened to this apron, but I wish I still had it.

In the late 1920s, half-aprons started to be popular. They didn’t use as much fabric, but they were still beautifully embellished with embroidery or appliqués. During World War II, fabric rationing required home seamstresses to make due with what they had and worn out dresses were often made over into half-aprons. After the war and on into the 1950s, half-aprons started making a fashion statement. There were aprons for daily use, for entertaining, or for holidays in sheer materials with ruffles, lace and ribbon trims.

Aprons were suddenly popular gift items once again, and ladies could quickly stitch one up from a pre-printed pattern or even buy one readymade. There were souvenir aprons for travelers to take back home, as well as plastic bib aprons. The aprons you find today are most often from the 1950s and 1960s, but the good news is that they are still available in abundance. Once you have a few aprons, don’t keep them shut up in a drawer. Try hanging them on pegs in your kitchen or tie them on the backs of your dining room chairs. This works especially well if you have a large collection of Christmas aprons, for example. You can also clip them to your kitchen windows and use them as curtains or valances.

Rummage sales, yard sales, your local thrift store- these are all good places to check for vintage aprons. Apron prices range from $1 to over $50, depending on age, style, and embellishments. Start your search by looking in your mother or grandmother’s kitchen drawers. I highly recommend that every kitchen have at least one apron, so go ahead and tie one on!

A poem for apron lovers, grandmothers and mothers everywhere:

Grandma’s Apron (author unknown)

When I used to visit Grandma, I was very much impressed,
By her all-purpose apron, and the power it possessed.
For Grandma, it was everyday to choose one when she dressed.
The strings were tied and freshly washed, and maybe even pressed.
The simple apron that it was, you would never think about;
The things she used it for, that’s what made it look worn out.

She used it for a basket, when she gathered up the eggs,
And flapped it as a weapon, when the rooster pecked her legs.
She used it to carry kindling when she stoked the kitchen fire,
And to hold a load of laundry, or to wipe the clothesline wire.
She used it for a hot pad, to remove a steaming pan,
And when her brow was heated, she used it for a fan.

It dried our childish tears, when we’d scrape a knee and cry,
And made a hiding place when the little ones were shy.
Farm produce took in season, in the summer, spring and fall,
Found its way into the kitchen from Grandma’s carry all.
When Grandma went to heaven, God said she now could rest.
I’m sure the apron that she chose, was her Sunday best.

Why not grab a meal with Mom at Reedley’s own Valentino’s–their specials are listed on their Facebook page. Check out this special coupon for KRL’s readers!

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.


  1. OH,ho! You are talking to a vintage gal here! My aprons are all actively in use, every day. (I am such a klutz!) I use mostly bib aprons, but I actually like the cobbler aprons best, because then I can keep my clothes protected from dangers and “slops” from any area! And yes, I do actually wear out my aprons.

    Thanks for the info, and I especially enjoyed the picture of your grandmother!

  2. Hi Yvonne. Thanks for your comments and especially thanks for reading Kings River Life!!


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