Nowadays, few remember them. But in a previous century, aprons were an everyday essential in every woman’s wardrobe. With an overhead strap and tied in back, they were worn to protect a lady’s dress, “because women couldn’t afford to ruin the few dresses they had,” recalled David Beckman from his 1940s upbringing in rural southeast Minnesota.
Compared to a dress, an apron did not require as much cloth or as fine a material. Most were hand-sewn from flour sacks; it did not matter if they got over-bleached from repeated washings.
Aprons permitted wearers to perform countless duties. It was a potholder when hot pans came out of the oven. Young David fondly remembers Grandma Beckman using her apron to place hot baked apple pies on the window sill to cool. (However, her great-granddaughters might set frozen pies on the window sill to thaw.)
The apron skirt was an impromptu carryall for whatever needed to be carried. In the chicken coop, it served to collect eggs and even “fussy chicks and sometimes half-hatched eggs to be finished in the warming oven.”
In the garden, it transported every variety of vegetable. After shelling the peas, the apron carried the hulls back outside. In autumn beneath the fruit trees, aprons also harvested fallen plums and apples. Wildflowers might be picked and brought in for a table bouquet. The clothesline wire might need wiping. Later, laundered items could be carried inside for folding.
Wood chips and kindling were toted into the kitchen for the wood stove. And then after bending over a hot stove, the cook might wipe the perspiration from her brow. When dinner was ready, the cook could walk out onto the porch where a waving apron skirt alerted the men in the field that it was time to come in for the meal.
When unexpected company was seen driving up the road, the apron could clear an amazing amount of dust from the furniture in a short amount of time.
It was a cry rag for drying out children’s tears and also known to clean out their dirty ears. When company came, the apron provided a hiding place for the faces of bashful young’uns. However, David’s most enduring and detailed memory was having his face buried in the front of Grandma Beckman’s apron during the many times she was “Grandma the Barber.”
In the family, she cut all the men’s and boys’ hair as long as she was physically able. The small boys would crawl up onto Grandma’s stool and wait for the freshly-washed dish towel to be wrapped around the shoulders and fastened “with one of a number of differently-sized safety pins which Grandma always had neatly lined up on the left straps of her apron. As Grandma would bend over, a thread hanging from a sewing needle stuck into the right strap of her apron would dangle in my face,” said David. “A search of her apron pockets probably would have revealed a thimble and spool of thread required for quick repairs.”
Next, the hair-cutting scissors would emerge from a deep pocket. On the back of the boy’s head, Grandma’s wrist would push until his “forehead snuggled deep into her soft, ever-increasing midsection.” Her not-well-coordinated use of both scissors and hand clippers would result in flinches from pulled hairs. Grandma would say, “Hold still” along with gentle hand pressure on the head.
Finally came the very demanding dispatch of the tiny bits of hair that evaded the towel around your neck. “Mother would remove my shirt, wad it up into a small bundle that was then used to scrape my skin vigorously until all the little hair clippings were gone.” Despite Grandma’s unconventional technique, “you ended up with a short, neat, consistent haircut as good as any barber could do.”
“Eventually, aprons became permanently stained from dish water, vegetable juices and wiping dirt from little boys’ faces when company came,” recalled Beckman, at one time – one young lad whose face experienced such an emergency wiping.
“Nowadays, many would go crazy trying to figure out how many germs were on that apron,” concluded David the senior citizen. “I don’t think anyone ever caught anything from aprons – except love.”
Source: written reminiscences of David Beckman