Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Wore My Apron to Walmart: A Domestic Tale

Yesterday was a bit trippy and unusual for me as many days have been here in Kentucky. I got up, put on one of my aprons (something flowing and with an ample bib, purchased at the Bird-in-Hand Farmer's Market in Lancaster County, PA a few years back), threw on a comfy black fleece cape (perfect for mild Kentucky winters) and headed to my friend Anna's who was making over 200 donuts for a community gathering to help a widow in need. My job was to show up and truck Anna and her trays of donuts to the event, a feat that doesn't really work in a horse and buggy. [Of course I deliberately did not eat breakfast so I could nibble on some--I don't usually like donuts but Krispy Kreme® has nothing on Anna Hurst's homemade glazed donuts.]

I love my aprons and all they represent and have a large collection: some new but vintage in style, some old and collectible, some soon to be made out of fun material I have found recently. Aprons are affordable works of art, iconic bits of our domestic past, usually one-of-a-kind, and much has been written about them, especially by apron guru EllynAnne Geisel, who wrote The Apron Book. [My friend Linda gave me this book for my birthday.] The best kind of apron has pockets and is large enough to wrap around and cover you. There is something "Wonder Womanish" about an apron. I always feel empowered, in domestic mode, able to multi-task and focus in a single bound (in fact, I'm wearing one now). My Mennonite women friends don't leave home without them and wear them as part of their dress. There is an assured confidence in their step as they wear their domestic armor and take great pride in their domestic abilities ("not that there is anything wrong with that..."). Of course, men have worn them throughout history, too (think blacksmiths and other artisans, cooks, waiters).

After we dropped off the donuts, we decided to do our shopping for the "frolic" that we're having at our house on Friday. [More on that later but it is a gathering of people for a barn-raising, in our case "shop raising," and the women in the community all cook for them: ours is a modified version.] So we headed to Somerset, the nearest "big shopping" town, and to the ubiquitous Walmart Super Center. I bought a big water cooler, a coffee urn and groceries.

As it was warm I left my cape in the car. I was half-way in the door when I realized I still had my apron on. Never mind, I thought. This will be fun. Besides, it miraculously coordinated with my skirt and shirt and those large pockets are so handy. And Anna was in her apron as she always is, except for church dress. [Anna and the women in her Mennonite community wear calico patterned aprons and dresses which are more varied than their plainer Amish counterparts.]

What unfolded was an experiment in contemporary life. I got a few strange looks and one woman asked me if I worked there and did I know where the ladies' socks were? "No, but I'll bet one of those people running around in a blue polo shirt and Walmart badge could help you." She seemed shocked that I was not an employee, despite my floral-designed apron. People really didn't seem to know what to make of me. Rather than the Mennonite bonnet I was wearing one of my usual bandanna headbands and German felt clogs. I then heard a guy in cosmetics whisper to his wife "There are a lot of Mennonites here today..." He was probably also questioning why I was browsing in the Valentine card section.

The highlight of the day came on the way home at Kroger. A man came up to me, tall and elderly and well put together. "I love your apron--I have one at home, well, it's white of course, but I wear it all the time. You look like you mean business both as a cook and a shopper." I offered that I'd forgotten to take it off earlier. "Oh no, it looks great!" Well, that just tickled me.

Then I came home to this blurb in the Farm Show newspaper on "The History of Aprons" [written, or compiled, by Mark Newhall, editor and publisher in his "Editor's Notebook" (vol. 33, no. 1)]. Well, it really spoke to me about why we love them so, as much for their nostalgic associations as for their practicality -- Yikes, I just found a slightly different tweaking of this copy at Itz Sew Lucy so who knows where the origin of the copy comes from! It is all over the Internet, unattributed. Old Anon, perhaps?]:
Do your kids know what an apron is? I'm not sure mine do because my wife never uses one. But her grandma did. The principal use, of course, was to protect the dress underneath, but, along with that, it served as a potholder for removing hot pans from the oven. It was also wonderful for drying children's tears, and on occasion was even used for cleaning out dirty ears. From the chicken coop, the apron was used for carrying eggs. When company came, those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids. And when the weather was cold, grandma wrapped it around her arms. Chips and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron. From the garden, it carried all sorts of vegetables. After the peas had been shelled, it carried out the hulls. When unexpected company drove up the road, it was surprising how much furniture that old apron could dust in a matter of seconds. And when dinner was ready, it served as a flag to call the men in from the fields to dinner. It will be a long time before someone invents something that will replace that old-time apron that served so many purposes.
[They forgot to mention pockets for clothespins and tissues, two of my favorite uses.] I had a good chuckle because not only did a man write about an apron, or at least include a blurb in his column, but a man paid me such a kind apron-related compliment at the store, and then my husband passed me the above article while we were reading last night (do you think that Farm Show is on my side of the bed? On second glance, all aprons aside, it will likely be on occasion now...and I don't even have space to talk about the "Goosemobile").

[NOTE: The lovely vintage image at top is from the Itz Sew Lucy website -- trying to find original source of that, too. But can you beat that? A bib-aproned clad woman in what appears to be an early 20th century pantry space or well-appointed period kitchen. Be still my heart! Also, the black and white image of "Grandma Love" from Coalgate, Oklahoma is from a collection of original photographs I purchased on eBay a few years ago. While I did not take the image, it belongs to me, so please use only with permission or credit "Grandma Love, Coalgate, Oklahoma." ]


a Cupcake near you! said...

Domestic Armor -- I love that. Great title for something. Watch out when she pulls the egg-beater out of one of those generous pockets!

Think of the books that have been sequestered away in an apron pocket to offer a little escape in a long day. Or a letter retrieved from the mailbox and set aside for the right moment.

Great images! Edie

Ladyfromthewoods said...

My Granny always wore a half-apron and used a huge safety pin to keep the pocket closed - as it was her personal medicine cabinet. Security against little children from finding the many pills that aid the ailing and aging. I can remember the sound of her rattling around the kitchen.

Catherine said...

These are such lovely comments. Everyone must have an apron memory or story out there! I remember Mrs. Taylor, our neighbor in the pink Greek Revival Cape across from the Gray Goose Farm where I grew up in Jaffrey. She always had an apron on (bib/farmhouse style) over a cotton summer dress. She smelled of vanilla and baked pie and all things good! When I was a young girl, my mother also wore those half-aprons that were popular in the 50s/50s. I think the farm bib apron is far more practical.

I think I'm going to start carrying a notepad around and pen for random ideas and musing throughout the day!

Miss Pixie Pants said...

You go girl Catherine! I've been collecting aprons well , since my great grandmother passed away. (1986) My grandmother was going to give them to the salvation army, I couldn't bear to see them go, memories of "helping" her hang sweet smelling freshly washed clothes out on the line (I was the official clothes pin hander upper) I wear mine during the day too wether it's cooking, cleaning (I can fit alot of tiny legos in those pockets!) or doing art stuff. I wear my great grandmothers aprons when I cook for company- some are getting threadbare, but there's always great conversation about them! I prefer the long bib style but have many half aprons- need any for your collection? I need to thin my collection a bit! Love ya, Melissa

celina from canada said...

i keep hoping someone will recognize that photograph....

Anonymous said...

Love this post :-)

In fact I was just getting ready to sew a couple of new ones this weekend because mine are looking so ratty & are badly stained.

I wear an apron every day.
Without an apron I'd get dirty - real dirty.
I can't cook or do laundry without one.

Not to mention spin wool or work in the garden.

I wear my apron up to the barn in the evening to feed livestock so I don't have to change into my barn clothes.

I've carried many a new lamb, misplaced kittens and zucchini in the skirt of my apron.

Karen said...

I wear my canvas type aprons most of the day around my house. Or outside puttering around or fussing with my many dogs - I find my apron (and it's pockets) indispensable. I use it for my cd player and listen to a lot of books on cd while I am cleaning or cooking. And I know without a doubt if I wore my into town I would get the "looks" also! I get the same looks sometimes with my Haflinger wool clogs too - which I wear all year round. Well I never was one for following the crowd . . .but I love a good apron:)

Anonymous said...

A lovely post. We also love and wear our aprons with pride. I don't feel "dressed" without my apron on when doing my housework. We tend to wear long pinafore style aprons as we wear long dressses so good coverage is a must. I wear my apron to where I volunteer and sometmes have a detour to the shops, I get looks also. Sometimes I get asked are you Amish? as I also wear a covering/bonnet. If I am with my two daughters and we are out, going to serve at a Church kitchen or food aid and "aproned" we really get some looks. Actually I have one of my favorites aprons on now, it is made from a pattern called an Edwardian apron.


Anonymous said...

I found your page by accident, but decided to leave a post anyway. Growing up my mother made aprons and sold them. She and my older sister always wore an apron. As we (three of us) lived in a shared house (top half)the housework was shared 3 ways. Being a boy I was still required to help and washing up was my main chore. When at the sink mom would tie one of her aprons on me , saying "keep clean and the laundry lean" She had a drawer or two full of aprons that didn't sell so there would be a different one handy every few days. I never wore it outside though but mom and sister often did. Ken.