CANANDAIGUA, NY — Lucille Ball of “I Love Lucy” wore one and so did the Beaver’s mother, June Cleaver.
Most TV moms of the 1950s and 1960s donned an apron, a reflection of what their female viewers typically wore around their homes. Generations of women routinely pulled on a bib or a half-apron, which they had stitched by hand or, later on, by machine. Embroidery, trims and lace often embellished both practical and dressy fabrics. Due to their popularity, aprons were manufactured in factories, including one in Canandaigua, to sell in department and gift stores across America and in Europe.
Today, aprons are still worn by members of younger generations but not as universally as in the past. People may nostalgically hold on to their mother’s or grandmother’s aprons, found tucked away and still neatly ironed. Rather than discard these vestiges of earlier times they are often saved and have now achieved the status of cultural artifacts in museums.
Wilma Townsend, curator of the Ontario County Historical Society, pulled from the society’s collection 16 examples of aprons once used by local women. “Aprons: Plain and Fancy,” the resulting display of aprons, features various styles and fabrics over about 100 years. Examples include hand-sewn aprons from the mid-1800s to machine-made patterns produced locally at the Cuddeback Co. business on Saltonstall Street in the mid-20th century.
“I like the colorful fabrics and trims, and the nostalgia of aprons — when I was young, my mother and grandmother wore them,” said Townsend.
One of the oldest aprons exhibited dates to about 1855 and is made of shimmering green silk. It was donated by a descendant of Mary Dixson Jewett (1816-1878), wife of Dr. Harvey Jewett of Canandaigua, one of Ontario County’s early physicians.
A young girl typically also wore an apron as a step toward her future homemaker role. Due to the fragility of textiles, one example of a child’s apron is behind glass. Its bright plaid silk fabric and elaborate red braid trim show little wear. “Clearly not meant for everyday use,” reads the museum label. Handwritten on the inside is “C. Powell” and “1859.”
“Aprons, towels, sheets all added value to home life and household activities,” said Townsend. “Fabrics and clothing cost more than today so aprons kept dresses clean so that they lasted longer. Aprons also had multiple uses — handling hot pans, cleaning a child’s face or tears, carrying fruits or vegetables. Traditional aprons and other household textiles remind us that we should reuse and recycle more and use throwaway items less.”
Several featured aprons dating from the 1950s belonged to Helen Higgins Ellis (1907-1994) who lived on Academy Place in Canandaigua. The diminutive Helen was married to Canandaigua City Historian Herbert Ellis and was a professional harpist, often performing in the community.
Prominent in the Historical Society’s display is a green gingham bib-style apron with white rick rack trim. Angular pieces of bright red fabric accent two pockets, and at the waist band, a crisp new Cuddeback Co. label is still intact. A fancier style half-apron made by this Canandaigua manufacturer is also displayed.
Several thousand aprons were made each week at the Cuddeback clothing factory, according to a business profile in the Daily Messenger in 1956.
John M. Cuddeback (1918-2009), a student of dress design at Pratt Institute, opened the business in the old firehouse on Canandaigua’s North Main Street in 1947. By 1951 he had renovated the old Saltonstall Street school building and built a large addition to the rear of the plant. There were four production departments, a factory store, and an office.
When the business started the owner was assisted by only two workers. By the 1950s, 25 to 30 sewing operators, mostly women, were employed.
Cuddeback aprons were made from percale, chintz, organdy, and embroidered fabrics.
“He also made house coats,” said John’s son, Richard Cuddeback. “Back then you took good care of your clothes because you didn’t have as many.”
Rich and his sister Ann had a special job at the factory bagging scrap material which was then sold to quilters.
“There was tons of fabric in scrap piles, taller than me,” said Rich, who added the young pair would climb up high onto the soft mounds.
After 25 years, citing “competition from clothing plants in the south,” Cuddeback closed the business in 1972. The Saltonstall Street property remained in the family and became a popular antique business for many years run by John and his son Rich until about 2015.
Judi Cermak, president of the Ontario County Arts Council (OCAC), said she has been looking forward to 2022.
"This is the year that OCAC has planned to exhibit fabric and fibers throughout the year,” said Cermak. The Historical Society is also mounting a major upcoming exhibit on textiles, "Fibers of Our Lives: From Practical Craft to Decorative Art in Ontario County."
On Saturday, April 9, Cermak, a retired art teacher, is offering a special workshop to help others decorate aprons.
“It’s like making a painting on canvas — only you are going to wear it,” said Cermak.
Cermak will teach how to create a personalized design on a blank apron using permanent dyes, block prints, and other materials. Everything will be provided but participants can bring their own plain apron for a $15 workshop fee. Otherwise, they can purchase an apron at the workshop for $25. Participants will leave with a personalized apron to keep or give as a gift.
The April 9 workshop is from 1 to 3 p.m. and is recommended for ages 10 years and up. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the museum at 585-394-4975.
The Ontario County Historical Society Museum is at 55 North Main St., Canandaigua.
The apron display is available during OCHS hours of 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free with donations appreciated.