FA B R I C S O F A M E R I C A N L I F E      An apron memory isn’t a scholarly dissertation      mired in dusty facts and...
Hand-sewn tafettawe might have had in common. Whether                                                              holiday...
FABRICS OF AMERICAN LIFE                                                  continued to make aprons and display their      ...
THE APRON CHRONICLES    John Lester Trezise’s family in 1905. The little girl is Jeannette Evelyn, the “apron baby.”into g...
THE APRON CHRONICLES  When Dad died at 38, Mother had  to raise four young daughters by  herself. She kept our family go- ...
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The American Interest (www.the-american-interest.com) March/April 2011 issue The Apron Chronicles by EllynAnne Geisel


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The American Interest (www.the-american-interest.com) March/April 2011 issue

The Apron Chronicles by EllynAnne Geisel

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The American Interest (www.the-american-interest.com) March/April 2011 issue The Apron Chronicles by EllynAnne Geisel

  1. 1. FA B R I C S O F A M E R I C A N L I F E An apron memory isn’t a scholarly dissertation mired in dusty facts and details. It is a story of fam- ily life, a personal history that engages and catches you up in the telling and listening. The Apron Chronicles EllynAnne Geisel D o you remember where you were when blissfully lived my girlhood dream. For 24 years you heard that Harriet Nelson had I happily performed the domestic routines of died? Probably not, but I do, because old-fashioned housewifery and childrearing. Harriet Nelson was my idol growing up. She But for all the joys of this domestic bliss, my was everything I wanted to be—a wife, mother career choice as a full-time homemaker came to and homemaker. Watching The Adventures of an end with the departure of our youngest for Ozzie and Harriet every week on television, I college. With his leave-taking, I dared imagine reverently noted Harriet’s clever way with her a second career as a writer. My first article, I husband and sons, how she dressed up each day decided, would be about the ultimate symbol to stay at home taking care of her family. I loved of domesticity: the humble apron. how they worshipped her. And, most of all, I I visited several thrift stores before finding coveted her apron. an inspirational apron in decent condition, its My own mother was an enigma in our clas- skirt of sunny yellow cotton with a wide peri- sically Fifties neighborhood. Long before it was winkle-blue waistband, and four evenly spaced the norm, she had a college degree, worked full narrow bands of colored bias tape. I didn’t real- time and raised a family. She enjoyed her career ize it at the time, but, for only 25 cents, this and was successful. But the job I wanted was apron would change my life. Harriet’s. So in 1966, I entered the University Following a thorough laundering, it was of Southern Hospitality with the goal of acquir- while pressing the apron I experienced a surge of ing my “Mrs.” degree. A tad sidetracked by boys emotion of such visceral intensity that I initially in bell-bottoms and rock-and-roll, I nonetheless thought I’d been electrocuted by the iron. Tying remained vigilant in pursuit of my girlhood on the apron intensified a sense of spiritual con- goal of marrying my Ozzie and becoming a nection to the homemaker who had selected the full-time homemaker and mother. Exchanging cloth, sewed the pattern and worn the apron as vows in 1975 and soon after twice a mother, I a part of her daily routine. I was replicating her actions, and in doing so, I sensed her trying to EllynAnne Geisel is the empress of apronology get through to me, to make me hear her voice. to a worldwide community of apronistas (www. Fingering the fabric, I wondered what she might apronmemories.com). be trying to tell me, what she had been like, what 60 The AmericAn inTeresT
  2. 2. Hand-sewn tafettawe might have had in common. Whether holiday apronshe’d been happily married; if her childrenhad driven her to distraction; if she hadpreferred dogs or cats; and what hadbeen her favorite holiday, friend,book, recipe, laundrytip or beauty secret.I wondered whetherher family still main-tained the rituals shehad performed for herfamily’s comfort andsecurity, or whetherin today’s hectic homelife her ways are deemedobsolete. I queried fifty friends andfamily about whether they won-dered the same things. My request complicated times, a scent, a hug, a confidence,prompted a shockingly scant response, and sev- the nurturing love between mother and child.eral of an unanticipated personal critique that The first apron I ever acquired through theamounted to: “You have too much time on your mail was from New Mexico, a hand-sewn taf-hands.” Did I? I had been so deeply affected by feta holiday apron wrapped in pink tissue. In anan apron, and why was no one else? accompanying letter, the sender wrote that she Perhaps, I thought, the apron I had chosen was a neighbor to the apron’s seamstress, a Mrs.was invested with transcendent qualities. Per- Dyer, who had died several years before. She’dhaps it was one of very few, or the only apron in heard through the grapevine that I “took inthe world, capable of affecting me so powerfully. aprons.” She asked that I add Mrs. Dyer’s apronTo test this hypothesis, I did the obvious thing: to my collection because no one from the familyI returned to the thrift stores with an old woven was alive to inherit it. I’d never been a guardianlaundry basket that soon overflowed with all of anything before, and suddenly I was chargedthe various aprons I collected. I disconfirmed with the care of an heirloom and the memory ofmy hypothesis: All the aprons were magical. the woman who had worn it. Other aprons soon For the next four years, I toted that laundry arrived in like manner, with stories of their own.basket everywhere I went: the bank, grocery, li- As my collection grew, I felt a responsibility tobrary, hardware store, movie theatre, ballpark, learn about the history of this quotidian icon.concert, ladies’ restroom line and homes towhich we were invited. Even when vacationing,I toted a smaller basket of aprons. The colorful-ly arrayed basket proved a magnet. Upon see- I t turns out that the history of the apron goes back quite a ways. Lore has it that Adam and Eve fashioned the first kind of apron outing and touching the aprons, men and women of fig leaves, according to the third chapteralike would enthusiastically share recollections of Genesis, to hide their nakedness from oneof homemakers in their lives. The aprons served another. However aprons came to be, almostas memory triggers, sparking heartfelt stories of every culture, as it turns out, has somethinga long-ago relationship with a beloved mother, resembling one. Many Indian tribes fabricat-grandmother or aunt—a guardian of the hearth ed similar garments, which were worn by menwho tied on an apron as domestic armor to care, as well as women. Immigrants brought apronscook, nurture, manage and sacrifice for her to America; they were a key part of a sensiblefamily. The aprons called them back to special woman’s wardrobe. Early American womencakes baked for birthdays, ironing tips, dough had only a few dresses, and aprons—almostrecipes, values and traditions from gentler, less ankle-length and of rugged cloth—allowed spring (mArch/April) 2011 61
  3. 3. FABRICS OF AMERICAN LIFE continued to make aprons and display their handiwork on whatever cloth was available, whether muslin, feed sack or recycled. By the 1940s, aprons and dresses were tighter fitting to conserve fabric, which reflected women’s support for the war effort and their commit- ment to “Make Do Without.” The postwar era was a time of abundance, and so aprons received upgrades in vibrant, bold colors. New household appliances gave the homemaker something previously unknown: free time. This let women sew as never before, with aprons often being the zenith of their avenues for creative expression. Also, for the first time, men donned aprons specific to their newfound past-time: backyard barbequing. With the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, however, untold thousands of Ameri- can women cast off their aprons and entered the workforce, seeking fulfillment outside the home. Liberated from ties now redefined to befor those dresses to be worn many times be- suffocating instead of nurturing, some womentween launderings. went so far as to throw away their aprons. In that For female pioneers in the 1800s, rugged gesture of freedom from the past, these womenand stalwart by necessity, aprons remained a unknowingly did away with a symbol that tiedwardrobe mainstay. Homesteading alongside us to the women of preceding generations, andmen, they tucked their dresses and aprons into to each other.waistbands as they cleared and plowed fields. Many aprons went undetected, however,Then, unfurling both, they used aprons to and thus managed to survive the feministcarry grain to chickens and vegetables from the purge. These were often discovered decadesgarden, gather eggs, shoo flies from the table, later by other women, usually adult daughters,remove a pan of biscuits from the oven, dry a nieces or younger cousins who sifted throughchild’s tears, wipe sweat from their brows and their elders’ possessions in childhood homes.flour from their hands. Aprons could also ward And with the same abandon and negative as-off a chill, or even conceal a rifle. sociation of the women of the Sixties, these The women who didn’t board a Calis- women very frequently stuffed those apronstoga wagon, but stayed put,mainly wore the protective, An apron that was purgedall-purpose apron of a domes- during the feminist eratic, nurse, factory laborer orseamstress. The well-heeledamong them sported apronsas a stylish clothing accessory,often embellished as a domesticart in tiny, immaculate embroiderystitches, delicate crochet and otherneedlecrafts, which testified totheir feminine skills. During the Depression yearsdelicate cotton was scarce orunaffordable, but women62 The AmericAn inTeresT
  4. 4. THE APRON CHRONICLES John Lester Trezise’s family in 1905. The little girl is Jeannette Evelyn, the “apron baby.”into giveaway bags. Those are the aprons that In 1899 my father was six years old, and histoday show up in thrift stores, to be rescued as mother was pregnant with her sixth child.priceless keepsakes intrinsic to the history of My grandmother went into labor at homewomen and vehicles of feminine expression. on their farm. The five children were sentTo me, aprons celebrate the spirit of women. across the field to stay at the neighbor’s. AsThey are oracles of simple truths of home and they crossed the field, the neighbor lady washeart. That’s why it’s more than a pleasure to coming to their house to be the midwife for“tie one on”; it’s a statement. their pregnant mother. As she walked past the children, she had her arms wrapped inI n the decade since I became a textile guardian of these touchstones of earlier generations, Ihave listened to and read hundreds of stories. I her kitchen apron. When the six-year-old, my father, re- turned home later in the day, he had a brandhave learned that an apron memory isn’t a schol- new baby sister. And he was forever convincedarly dissertation mired in dusty facts and details. that the baby was brought to their home inIt is a story of family life, a personal history that the apron of the neighbor lady.engages and catches you up in the telling andthe listening. Without the stories, aprons are Junior high school during the 1950s re-just so much fabric. It’s the memories they evoke quired girls to take a home economics class,that make them so powerful. Three examples in and the first sewing project was always anparticular come to mind. apron. Bennie Swanson was one of the first With the publication in 2006 of The Apron 46 people to come upon me and my basketBook, many readers were moved to share their of aprons, and hers is one of the apron storiesapron memories with me. This story was typed that comprise my traveling exhibit, “Apronon a postcard. It remains one of my favorites, Chronicles: A Patchwork of American Recol-for the precious innocence of a child at the lections.” Our paths crossed in 2002, the yearturn of the century. La Veta Trezise, who to- her mother, Neva Carrico, died. Bennie’s sad-day is 91 and still lives independently in her ness was still fresh, and she told me that sheown home, says her father, John Lester Trezise, and her mom “…will always be connected byloved to tell this story. loving apron strings.” spring (mArch/April) 2011 63
  5. 5. THE APRON CHRONICLES When Dad died at 38, Mother had to raise four young daughters by herself. She kept our family go- ing by working in a bakery, scrubbing floors and cases. After a long day, she’d re- turn home and still have the energy to run the house, sew our clothes and sing. Her favor- ite song was “Sunny side of the Street.” If she had fears, we never knew them, because she al- ways had a song to brighten a cloudy day. Even when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she kept looking at the bright side Bennie Swanson’s 1959 home economics of things. Asked how she was doing, she project—a gingham apron always smiled and said, “I can’t complain.” As I was going through her things, I spot- ted a familiar fabric in the back of a kitchen my gift was a little pink apron trimmed in drawer. It was the apron I’d made in seventh white rickrack. I loved it and showed it to grade home-ec class back in 1959. Such won- everyone. It meant so much to me, I wore it derful memories are woven into the lavender until it was falling apart. checked cloth: going to Duckwall’s together to That little apron was such a sacrifice for purchase the fabric, my excitement at learning my parents. I can’t imagine what they did to sew, the thrill of presenting the completed without so I might not be disappointed on apron to her, how special I felt when she wore Christmas morning. it to fix dinner, and most of all, her uncon- It was my best Christmas present ever. ditional love and how her face lit up when I walked into the room. I miss my mom. Mrs. Martha Marie Pugh wrote her story W hen I look back at all the projects I’ve begun and abandoned over the past half century, I have to wonder why I perse-in elegant cursive. When I mentioned her ex- vere on this apron journey. The answer is, I’vequisite handwriting to Drucilla, Mrs. Pugh’s decided, that I could spend a lifetime travel-daughter-in-law, she said such grace was ex- ing this great country with a laundry baskettraordinary, given the tremendous starkness of vintage aprons and collecting the most in-of her mother-in-law’s young life in Pawnee, teresting stories told by the dearest people—Oklahoma. Even more exceptional is that all through the conduit of an old-fashioned,from such a hardscrabble world, Martha Ma- nearly forgotten domestic icon. That suchrie Barnes would later travel the world, visit a mundane object can conjure such distantEngland and be presented to the Queen. memories, evoke such strong emotions and prompt so many new friendships, all celebrat- I was born in 1931, during the Great Depres- ing the lives of women past and present, never sion. Santa did not show up at our house with ceases to amaze me. This journey provides me a big bag of gifts; my parents, however, did endless inspiration. Wherever it leads, I know see that we got at least one gift. I will always hear a new voice, for aprons don’t The Christmas when I was 4 years old, hold us back, they take us back. spring (mArch/April) 2011 65