Back in the mid-twentieth century, before women wore casual slacks or jeans to do housework, the apron was a useful, and often elaborate, handmade gift. Aprons were not included in the rule that gifts of clothing were too intimate for anyone but family members. Pattern catalogs and women’s magazines usually featured apron patterns in November and December; in my parents’ home, one sign that Christmas was approaching was the making of pajamas and aprons.
The elaborate backs of these aprons may be surprising to those of us who are used to modern, store-bought, unisex aprons. These were serious aprons that protected your dress.
This unisex apron set from 1950 shows the basic outline of inexpensive, utilitarian aprons like the ones in my kitchen today; in 1950 they were called “barbecue” aprons, and the idea of a man cooking and wearing an apron at home was no longer just a joke — although the gift aprons were often intended to be humorous.
This apron set, found in a McCall Needlework catalog from May, 1950, has elaborate appliques, and would probably have been intended as a gift set — made for a friend, or newlyweds, or intended to be sold at a charity bazaar.
Making aprons to sell at fundraisers is an old tradition. The Ladies’ Home Journal suggested making these aprons for a fundraiser during WW I:
Of course, when women made aprons for themselves, they might prefer a simple shape, bound in bias tape…
… but frilly, sometimes silly, labor-intensive aprons were a staple of holiday gift-making.You can see the pattern piece shapes for No. 917 from a copy in the CoPA collection; click here.
Aprons like the ones below, often decorated half-aprons, were called “cocktail aprons” or “bridge aprons,” [for hosting card parties] and were worn while entertaining, not cooking or washing dishes.
I suspect that many fancy aprons were re-gifted and never worn (probably why so many delicate aprons survive in vintage collections.)
This one, decorated with Scottie dogs, is my virtual gift to The Vintage Traveler.
Aprons and Sewing Classes
Many girls and women made aprons while learning to sew. A simple half apron was well within the abilities of elementary school students, and many a proud mother must have received an apron — far too pretty to wear — for Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.
A Super-Successful Apron Pattern
I found three McCall needlework catalogs (1946 to 1950) at an estate sale; some apron patterns were so successful that they appeared year after year, so a three-digit pattern number is often an indication that the pattern pre-dates 1946. This one first appeared in 1941 and was still in the catalog for November, 1950 — nine years later.
The Necktie apron — cut in many sections — had to be folded to be ironed correctly:
In the post-war period it was generally assumed that little girls wanted to grow up to be housewives, just like their Mommies. You could buy identical apron patterns for children and women, like these:
Once upon a time, little girls wore dresses all day, and protected them with aprons or pinafores. Women also expected a practical apron to protect their dresses from cooking spatters and laundry suds; except for their elaborate embroidery or appliques, these aprons would do the trick:
The apron below is really unusual — but I’ll save the other aprons with novelty pockets for another day!
Although it looks complex, this apron would lie completely flat for ironing — more practical than it looks.
Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you’re inspired to cook up something delightful.