The humble apron of the 18th century

Many of us have at least one apron, how often it’s worn will vary greatly. Today they are usually colourful with motifs, some plastic, some cotton. Protection for clothing has been used for centuries so we thought we would take a look at some other uses for the humble apron back in the Georgian Era.

The Unwilling Bridegroom or Forc'd Meat will never digest by William Murray, 1778. Courtesy of the British Museum. The apron covering a multitude of sins!
The Unwilling Bridegroom or Forc’d Meat will never digest by William Murray, 1778. Courtesy of the British Museum. The apron covering a multitude of sins!

We were quite surprised to see just how many accounts there were of aprons being stolen, for example, a report in The News of January 23rd, 1738 when Elizabeth Swann was committed to gaol for stealing a basket and an apron. Gruesome accounts sadly exist where an apron was used to stifle the screams when a woman was being raped. Others told of how aprons caught fire with disastrous consequences or to help extinguish a fire, but we thought we would look at some more unusual ones.

This is a very sad account of its use. In June of 1726, a brazier’s apprentice near Smithfield and a fellow servant had an argument. In a fit of passion, the female servant told the young apprentice to ‘go hang himself’. He took her harsh words quite literally and was found dead with her apron strings tied to his bedstead.

Apron dating back to the first quarter 18th century made from silk, metal thread. Courtesy of The MetMuseum
Apron dating back to the first quarter 18th century made from silk, metal thread. Courtesy of The MetMuseum

In September 1738, a Barbara Balingal stood bare-headed at the cross between the hours of 11 and 12, with two dozen herrings put about her neck by the executioner (no explanation given as to why, unfortunately!) and the following label on her apron

‘I Barbara Balingal stand here for cheating and beating the servants of the neighbourhood’

Afterwards, Barbara was remanded to prison until she paid the complainer ten shillings sterling damages.

The Careless Servant by Francis Wheatley, Francis. Courtesy of the  Walker Art Gallery
The Careless Servant by Francis Wheatley, Francis. Courtesy of the  Walker Art Gallery

Around mid-October 1750 a woman was found dead in one of the new houses in Parliament Street, Westminster; her apron was full of shavings and sticks and it is supposed that whilst gathering them she fell, which occasioned her death.

A Peasant Girl Gathering Faggots in a Wood by Thomas Gainsborough. Courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

One common theme appears is that the type of apron worn seems to denote the occupation, this theme recurs when identifying dead bodies ‘he was wearing a leather apron’, the conclusion, in this case, being that he must have been a carpenter.

Edward Prince (b.1718/1719), Carpenter, Aged 73 by John Walters. Courtesy of the National Trust, Erddig.  His apron showing the tools of his trade.
Edward Prince (b.1718/1719), Carpenter, Aged 73 by John Walters. Courtesy of the National Trust, Erddig. His apron showing the tools of his trade.

Aprons were also symbolic as can be seen below by the Freemason wearing an apron as part of his regalia of office, the different aprons denoting their position within the brotherhood.

Portrait of a Freemason.  Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry

We don’t think we’ve ever come across an article like before. It relates to a dinner given by King George II in 1730 for an Indian king, a prince and 5 chiefs of his court. When introduced to the king at Windsor, the Indian king wore a scarlet jacket, but all the rest of the entourage were naked, except for an apron about their middles and a horse-tail hung down behind, their faces and shoulders were painted and spotted with red, blue and green. They had bows in their hands and painted feathers on their heads. Whatever must the monarch have thought?

Miniature of George II by Christian Friedrich Zincke, c.1727. Royal Collection Trust.
Miniature of George II by Christian Friedrich Zincke, c.1727. Royal Collection Trust.

We end with a story from the newspapers of January 1790 and a lovely scene of domesticity in the royal household. The Princess Royal surprised her royal mother with a present, which, though of no great value in itself, was rendered highly pleasing to her Majesty, by the manner in which it was made. Her Royal Highness had procured some beautiful muslin, which she got made up into four aprons, three of which were for herself, and for the Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth. The fourth was for her majesty. The last had a much richer trimming than the other three.  It was bound with ribband and trimmed with a broad and beautiful blond lace, to which was added a rich fringe.  When the Queen was going to sit down to breakfast, the Princess Royal presented her with the apron and begged her Majesty would do her the pleasure of wearing it. The Queen, charmed both with the apron and with the attention of her lovely daughter immediately put it on, and said that in her life that she had never worn an apron which she prized so highly.

Charlotte, Princess Royal by Sir William Beechey. Royal Collection Trust.
Charlotte, Princess Royal by Sir William Beechey. Royal Collection Trust.

Sources Used  

Sheffield Register, Yorkshire, Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Universal Advertiser 22 January 1790

Caledonian Mercury 30 June 1730

Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer, October 18, 1750 – October 20, 1750

Ipswich Journal 04 June 1726

Daily Gazetteer, Monday, January 23, 1738

Daily Gazetteer, Thursday, September 14, 1738

Featured Image

Allan, William; The Ballad of Old Robin Gray. Courtesy of University of Aberdeen

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10 thoughts on “The humble apron of the 18th century

  1. Sarah Waldock

    I thought the offence of Barbara Balingal was self-evident, being a fairly standard punishment to be exposed, carted or pilloried for selling short weight or adulterated or rotten goods. Having the herings around her neck suggests that she was selling unfresh fish and part of her punishment was having to both smell them during the sentence, and get the stink out of her shift later. The smell of elderly herrings is tenacious and hangs affectionately around like a discarded mistress.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      We thought that at first, but the sign around her said she had been ‘cheating and beating the servants of the neighbourhood’ so perhaps guilty of both offences. The smell of those herrings must have awful!

      Like

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  5. Owen Roberts

    Super post, especially for a keen apron-wearer like myself! Wondered if you had anything on the use Susanna Wesley (1669-1742) made of her apron, ie putting it over her head to pray and denote to the rest of her large household Do Not Disturb? I don’t have a reference for this story, but I’ve heard it a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so much, we’re delighted you enjoyed it. Yes, we were vaguely aware of Susanna and from what we’ve read it seems as if you’re quite correct – it was the equivalent of Do Not Disturb sign 🙂

      Like

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