This is the first of a series of columns on back then.
"Back then" is a familiar phrase in American English, denoting a period in the past which is defined by the content of the conversation, as in "when my parents were growing up" or "during the Depression." It is not confined to Southerners, but as people whose identity is closely tied to home, kin, history and life ways. They have used it extensively to anchor themselves and their families to who they were.
Mundane things from everyday life reveal much about the people who live that life. The pictures from the past which follow are intended to portray the people through apparently unusual tools and practices that were embedded in their lifeways. Although the canvas on which they are painted is my memory, the pictures are not about me but the "plain folk" among whom I grew up. I have borrowed the apt term "plain folk" from Frank Owsley from his insightful history, "The Plain Folk of the Old South."
Tom Brokaw wrote about people whom he knew from the era of the Great Depression and World War II and called them collectively "The Greatest Generation." I do not disagree, but contend that the struggle to survive and fashion a better life on the part of my "Plain Folk" lasted much longer than one generation. Quietly, many of them were heroes, a bit like those recognized by Lewis Grizzard in "Shoot Low: They're Riding Shetland Ponies." Few will ever be remembered by their names, but their shared faith, courage and struggle should not be forgotten.
The time frame for this particular "back then" is largely defined by my memories of growing up — roughly 1935-1960.
Women wore aprons back then. Except for butchers and blacksmiths, men did not. For farm women, aprons were daily garments that served many purposes.
Some aprons were pinafore-style, covering all of the front and part of the back of the wearer's dresses from neck to below the knees. Strings — really narrow sashes — secured the sides of the apron at the back. Other aprons started at the waist, perhaps because the maker only had enough cloth (material, piece goods) to make a smaller version, but these were also less confining.
Aprons varied. Most women wanted at least one "Sunday apron" made of "nice material" and decorated with "gathers," frills or lace. When they got home from church, they put on their Sunday aprons to finish the Sunday dinners — never called lunch — that they had begun earlier. Every day aprons were simpler and made of sturdier material.
Many wanted pockets on the front of their aprons. Although putting on pockets and making them look good required skilled sewing and a lot of time, they had many uses. Some wearers tucked away small pocket knives, round-pointed scissors, a spool of thread, a handkerchief or piece of cloth from a worn sheet as substitute for a handkerchief. Some also included their little can of snuff. Like their husbands and sons, farm women found many uses for pockets.
The obvious reason for aprons was to protect regular clothing from dirt and stains. Since they only washed clothes once a week and since no one had a lot of clothes, it was necessary to wear the same garments more than once each week and aprons protected them from soil and stains.
However, aprons had many other uses. They were gathered up from the bottom and pulled up to the face to wipe away sweat. (These people worked too hard for the word "perspiration" to be appropriate.) The same "tail of the apron" wiped away the tears of children with stubbed toes or hurt feelings. Apron wearers did not need a bucket or basket to gather the eggs from their hen nests because aprons could be turned into bags for the task. They might also hold enough peas, butter beans, tomatoes, peaches or whatever for a "mess" for their families.
These garments were so strongly associated with their wearers that a child closely linked emotionally with or dominated by his or her mother was said to be "tied to her apron strings."
Still, back then, children overcome by pain, fear or emotional distress, found comfort in the folds of their mothers' aprons or those of grandmothers or favorite aunts. Even today, some who grew up in the era of comforting aprons miss them sorely in times of great sorrow, sickness or other distress. Inside they yearn for the ample aprons and larger hearts of those who wore them. In the words of an old song, "Won't you tie me to your apron strings again? I know there's room for me upon your knee."
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.