An apron can do much more than just shield clothes from food stains.
According to Carolyn Stucky of rural Inman, it can tell the story of women's roles during the decade it was made.
Stucky is the owner of over 200 aprons, some dating back to the early 1900s.
“I've probably always had a respect for what women do in the home,” she said. “There's probably no better symbol of that work than an apron. That's probably why I've started collecting.”
She begun with the aprons she wore and made as a child, and added those of her grandmother and mother. Later, she kept her eyes open at garage sales and thrift stores, and even received some through the mail and on her doorstep. As she has obtained every kind of pattern, fabric and style, one thread connected them all.
“As I started collecting them, one of the things I noticed was that when I looked at what was happening to women, it was mirrored in their aprons,” she said.
Patterns of style
Many of the patterns Stucky sees in aprons can be separated by decade.
In the 1920s, society was simple but comparatively untroubled. Aprons often came from dresses and were turned to rags when they were deemed unusable. They were long and had no waist or embellishments.
“Society expected women to have good home making skills,” she said. “A lot of the formal education was directed at teaching those skills.”
This expectation continued into the 1930s and 1940s, but was eclipsed by the hardships World War II. Aprons were kept simple and were made by necessity.
In the 1950s, however, everything changed with the boom of automatic machines and industry in the United States. This confidence in society is mimicked on aprons, shown by a drastic shift in the use of pleats, lace, pockets, rhinestones and other decorative touches. Many were worn for fashion rather than function.
“You cannot get better than the 1950s apron,” Stucky said. “Again, I think society expected women to be in the home. They upheld women. I mean, you were the queen. Women were expected to be feminine.”
By the 1960s, everything changed. Women's work in the home was deemed second class, largely due to women's rights movements. Stucky herself was looking to be a dietician but desired rather to be in the home.
“Society looked at me like, ‘If you're staying at home, you're just wasting your education,’” she said.
This thought process carried into the 1970s and 1980s, where Stucky said aprons in their former use disappeared from kitchens altogether. Instead they were made as arts and crafts.
“It was not something you did because you needed to have a rack full of aprons,” she said. “You did it because it was sort of an outgrowth of creativity.”
Attitudes toward aprons have softened a bit since then, Stucky said. From the 1990s to today, many are butcher-block style and gender neutral.
“I think women today have choices,” she said. “I think the work of the home plus professional work outside of the home…women are valued for what they can do.”
Spreading the stories
This value is important for Stucky, who has now spoken to several local quilt guilds and historical societies about her discoveries.
“I do appreciate what women have done in the home,” she said. “What we do for our families is extremely important. When you look back to the 1920s and 1930s, none of us have any idea about what these women accomplished. I sort of give them a voice.”
And as she does her presentations, others have shared their voices.
“I love it because you hear more stories,” she said. “Every apron has a story.”
One of her favorite aprons goes along with one of her most sentimental stories. Her mother, who recently passed away around the age of 90, had sewn her whole life. Although she couldn't continue sewing, she embroidered as much as she could as her years came to a close.
“When I do my apron talk, one of the things I want to remember in this apron is that, as I get older, not to focus on the things I cannot do, but to focus on what I can still do,” she said.
This is but one of many stories she could tell, and each come with a new apron. But will she ever have too many?
“I'm getting there,” she said with a laugh.