Whether rolling out pie crusts or gathering eggs from the henhouse, women once tied on aprons to protect their clothing from splatters and spills—and those handy, humble scraps of fabric are treasures to Carolyn Terry of Iuka, Miss. (pop. 3,059).
“Aprons are art and history and reflect the economic times,” says Terry, 60, who has collected 2,200 vintage aprons and honors the practical wraps at The Apron Museum in downtown Iuka.
Clipped to overhead clotheslines and displayed along one wall are aprons stitched from checkered cotton gingham, dainty handkerchiefs, and recycled feed and flour sacks adorned with appliquéd bows, rickrack, ruffles and oversized pockets.
“People have always worn aprons,” says Terry, “from the caveman to protect himself from the elements to American Indians with their beautiful tribal clothing.”
A part of the workaday ward-robes of blacksmiths, butchers, carpenters, printers, shopkeepers and especially homemakers, the unappreciated garments have been treasured by Terry since her grandmother, Annie Hester Medley, stitched a floral-printed one especially for her when she was 8 years old.
While searching auctions and estate sales for rare and out-of-print books, her first passion, Terry often found boxes and bundles of aprons. About 20 years ago, she began bidding on and buying the homemade and ready-made garments, cleaning and repairing the best of them for her collection.
Terry found her oldest cotton keepsakes, which date from the 1860s, at a wealthy family’s estate sale in Memphis, Tenn. “The women of the house would have worn these,” she says, describing the white ankle-length aprons trimmed with crocheted panels and lace. She bought the household’s plain maids aprons, too.
Among Terry’s collection are finely embroidered 1940s aprons, which were sold with prestamped designs of flower baskets and bonneted ladies for homemakers to embroider. Most of her collection, however, is from the garments’ glory days of the 1950s, when women donned frilly and stylish hostess aprons for bridge and garden parties, and men wore chef-style aprons while manning backyard barbecue grills.
“Life was good after World War II and people had extra income” to purchase aprons, says Terry, whose store-bought designs feature state maps, Christmas bells and comical messages such as “Eat, Drink and Be Merry . . . for Tomorrow We Diet!”
Terry collects all-things-apron, including vintage sewing patterns and photographs of people wearing aprons. She dresses dishwashing detergent bottles in tiny aprons and records literary passages and stories about aprons.
She also saves apron-related stories from visitors to The Apron Museum, which she opened in 2006 after driving to see a traveling apron exhibit in Dallas, Texas, and realizing that she needed to share her own collection.
“As far as I know, it’s the only apron museum in the world,” says Terry, whose ever-expanding exhibit sparks tender memories of apron-clad grandmothers, mothers and aunts sitting on the porch snapping green beans or using the ends of aprons as potholders to carry hot pans of biscuits.
“Every one of the aprons tells a story,” says visitor Deb Daniel, 51, of Iuka. “I think about some homemaker using what she had to make the apron. She was economical.”
Though the appeal of aprons faded as women’s roles expanded beyond the household during the 1960s, the useful kitchen garments are fashionable once again with women of all ages—going hand-in-hand with renewed interests in cooking, gardening and sewing.
Daniel’s daughter, Cassie, 26, of Hernando, Miss. (pop. 6,812), browses a rack of aprons for sale in the museum’s shop. Cassie cherishes her great-grandmother’s aprons and enjoys adding more to her kitchen collection. “I feel like my great-grandmother’s apron knows more what it’s doing than I do,” the budding baker says.
Terry loves hearing those remarks.
“An apron is an item of comfort,” she says.