Ontario County Historical Society exhibits aprons throughout history

CANANDAIGUA, NY – Lucille Ball of ‘I Love Lucy’ wore one, as did beaver mother June Cleaver.

Most television mothers of the 1950s and 1960s wore an apron, a reflection of what their female viewers typically wore at home. Generations of women regularly donned a bib or half apron, which they had sewn by hand or, later, by machine. Embroidery, trimmings and lace often embellished practical and dressy fabrics. Due to their popularity, the aprons were made in factories, including one in Canandaigua, for sale in department stores and gift shops across America and Europe.

Today, aprons are still worn by members of younger generations, although not as universally as in the past. People can cling wistfully to their mother’s or grandmother’s aprons, found tucked away and still neatly ironed. Rather than discarding these remnants of ancient times, they are often rescued 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 presentation of aprons, showcases various styles and fabrics over approximately 100 years. Examples include hand-sewn aprons from the mid-1800s to machine-made designs produced locally at the Cuddeback Co. business on Saltonstall Street in the mid-20th century.

People can cling wistfully to their mother's or grandmother's aprons, found tucked away and still neatly ironed.

“I love colorful fabrics and trims, and the nostalgia of aprons — when I was young, my mom and grandma wore them,” Townsend said.

One of the oldest aprons on display dates from around 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 first physicians.

A young girl usually also wore an apron as a step towards her future role as a housewife. Due to the fragility of textiles, an example of a child’s apron is behind glass. Its lustrous checkered silk fabric and elaborate red braided trim show little wear. “Clearly not intended for everyday use,” reads the museum label. Handwritten inside is “C. Powell” and “1859”.

“Aprons, towels, linens all add value to home life and household activities,” Townsend said. “Fabrics and clothes cost more than they do today, so aprons keep dresses clean so they last longer. a child carrying fruit or vegetables Traditional aprons and other household textiles remind us that we need to reuse and recycle more and use less disposable items.

Several aprons once belonging to Helen Higgins Ellis are on display at the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua.

Several featured aprons from the 1950s belonged to Helen Higgins Ellis (1907-1994) who lived on Academy Place in Canandaigua. Little Helen was married to Canandaigua town historian Herbert Ellis and was a professional harpist, often performing in the community.

A bib-style apron in green gingham with white rick rack trim is prominently displayed in the Historical Society display. Angular pieces of bright red fabric accent two pockets, and at the waistband a crisp new Cuddeback Co. label is still intact. A more sophisticated style half apron made by this Canandaigua manufacturer is also featured.

Aprons like big business

Cuddeback Company, which made aprons, moved to a former schoolhouse in Saltonstall Street in 1951. The factory closed in 1972.

Several thousand aprons were made each week at the Cuddeback clothing factory, according to a company profile in the Daily Messenger in 1956.

John M. Cuddeback (1918-2009), a student of clothing design at the Pratt Institute, opened the business in the old fire hall on Canandaigua’s North Main Street in 1947. By 1951 he had remodeled the former Saltonstall Street School building and built a large addition to the rear of the plant. There were four production departments, a factory outlet and an office.

When the business started, the owner was assisted by only two workers. By the 1950s, 25–30 sewing operators, mostly women, were employed.

Cuddeback aprons were made from percale, chintz, organdy and embroidered fabrics.

“He also made housecoats,” said John’s son, Richard Cuddeback. “Back then, you took good care of your clothes because you didn’t have that many.”

Richard Cuddeback's father, John, ran the Cuddeback Company, which made aprons in all styles and colors.

Rich and his sister Ann had a special job at the scrap bagging plant which was then sold to quilters.

“There were tons of fabrics in scrap heaps, taller than me,” said Rich, who added that the young couple would climb high on the soft mounds.

After 25 years, citing “competition from garment factories 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 around 2015.

Make your own apron

Ontario County Council of the Arts Chair, Judi Cermak, will demonstrate how to make a decorative apron on April 9.

Judi Cermak, chair of the Ontario County Arts Council (OCAC), said she is looking forward to 2022.

“This is the year OCAC planned to exhibit fabrics and fibers throughout the year,” Cermak said. 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 painting on canvas – only you are going to wear it,” Cermak said.

Cermak will teach how to create a custom design on a blank apron using permanent dyes, block prints and other materials. Everything will be provided but attendees can bring their own plain apron for a $15 workshop fee. Alternatively, they can purchase an apron at the workshop for $25. Participants will leave with a personalized apron to keep or give away.

The April 9 workshop is from 1 to 3 p.m. and is recommended for ages 10 and up. To register, email [email protected] or call the museum at 585-394-4975.


The Ontario County Historical Society Museum is located at 55 North Main Street, Canandaigua.

The apron display is available during OCHS hours of operation from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free and donations are appreciated.

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