Queen of the Kitchen

3 May

If the study was the domain of the man of the house in Isabella’s time, the kitchen was the empire of the lady of the house.

A middle-class kitchen in the early 1900s

A middle-class kitchen in the early 1900s

Women toiled long hours in kitchens to make meals, preserve food for future use, launder clothing and linens, and heat water for baths and house-cleaning tasks.

A modern kitchen in 1914

A modern kitchen in 1914

Even when the lady of the house had help in the kitchen—a live-in maid or a local “girl” who came for the day—they still spent the majority of their time in the kitchen, where conditions could be extreme.

An American kitchen, circa 1900

An American kitchen, circa 1900

In many households the kitchen stove burned 24 hours a day. The stove was stoked early in the morning to raise the heat so water could be boiled and breakfast could be cooked. It then burned throughout the remainder of the day until bedtime. In winter the kitchen was the warmest room in the house. In summer the kitchen was sweltering, with inadequate ventilation and no escape from the heat.

Baking Bread in 1914

Baking Bread in 1914

Isabella’s book Ester Ried opens with a scene in the Ried kitchen, with Ester toiling in the kitchen on a hot day:

Apron 1910 It was a very bright and very busy Saturday morning.

“Sadie!” Mrs. Ried called, “can’t you come and wash up these baking dishes? Maggie is mopping, and Ester has her hands full with the cake.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Sadie, appearing promptly from the dining-room, with Minnie perched triumphantly on her shoulder. “Here I am, at your service. Where are they?”

Ester glanced up. “I’d go and put on my white dress first, if I were you,” she said significantly.

And Sadie looked down on her pink gingham, ruffled apron, shining cuffs, and laughed.

“Oh, I’ll take off my cuffs, and put on this distressingly big apron of yours, which hangs behind the door; then I’ll do.”

“That’s my clean apron; I don’t wash dishes in it.”

“Oh, bless your careful heart! I won’t hurt it the least speck in the world. Will I, Birdie?”

And she proceeded to wrap her tiny self in the long, wide apron.

Apron and Laundry

Later in the book, when Ester returned home after a lengthy visit with her cousin:

Full apron 1906Ester was in the kitchen trimming off the puffy crusts of endless pies—the old brown calico morning dress, the same huge bib apron which had been through endless similar scrapes with her.

Not all aprons were as large as the kitchen apron Ester wore. In fact, ladies often had different aprons for different tasks.

Apron 1917

Work aprons were large and covered the entire front of a woman’s dress. They had plenty of pockets for thimbles, spools of thread, needles and pins, or any other household item the lady of the house wanted to have immediately at hand as she went about her daily housekeeping chores.

A 1910 photograph with the women of the family wearing three different styles of apron.

A 1910 photograph with the women of the family wearing three different styles of apron.

At the other end of the spectrum, tea aprons were feminine half-aprons that tied around a lady’s waist and covered her lap as she entertained family and guests at tea or luncheon.

Apron 1922

Aprons were relatively simple to make; popular ladies’ magazines often featured apron patterns or embroidery and trim designs to customize a home-made apron. In 1922 the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences published a pamphlet of instructions for making a variety of different aprons. You can download a copy of here.

A 1904 magazine ad for Green Brand aprons.

A 1904 magazine ad for Green Brand aprons.

Now, as in Isabella’s time, aprons come in many styles. And though they are no longer a staple in a woman’s wardrobe, there are many women today who love to make and wear aprons.

A 1914 ad for Dutch Cleanser

A 1914 ad for Dutch Cleanser

Want to see what’s hot in aprons today? Here are two sites that sell aprons:

Jessie Steele

Vintage Aprons

And you can visit Collectors’ Weekly to read a nice post about vintage aprons.


Do you ever wear an apron? Feel free to use the Comment box to share what you like about aprons or tell us where you like to shop for aprons.

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2 Responses to “Queen of the Kitchen”

  1. Mary A. Post May 3, 2016 at 8:42 am #

    Thank you for this article; I so enjoy your posts and pictures!
    I love aprons and have several old-fashioned ones, but living in Florida, it is often to hot in the kitchen to actually wear them, though I often need to as I mostly cook daily meals from ‘scratch’.

    • Isabella Alden May 3, 2016 at 7:11 pm #

      Sounds like aprons are still very useful item in the kitchen. I don’t often cook from scratch like you do, Mary, but I can get messy using the microwave. 🙂 Since writing the post, I’ve been thinking of getting an apron or two of my own. —Jenny

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