Iuka’s Apron Museum is the only one of its kind in the country and gives reverence to an oft-forgotten cultural artifact.
Written by Rachel Burchfield | Photographed by Joe Worthem
On a sunny Tuesday morning in late September, husband-and-wife duo Carolyn and Henry Terry are sitting on a front porch, talking about a subject they’ve become experts in over the past 15 years — aprons.
“How many people have you interviewed that have done some-thing that nobody ever did?” Carolyn asked. And thus, the story of The Apron Museum in Iuka, Mississippi — the only museum in the United States dedicated to aprons and the stories they tell — begins.
To start, the Terrys never really set out to start the only museum dedicated to aprons. According to Carolyn, they did it accidentally. She, a longtime paralegal, had been doing the same work for decades; her creative side was itching to come out.
“I’d had it with paperwork,” she said. “I wanted to do something besides paperwork.”
At age 55, she and husband Henry had already bought the buildings that currently house what is now The Apron Museum. They had a whole mess of ideas about what to put in them.
“I said ‘That’s it — I’m going to quit work and just do all those things I’ve always dreamed about,’” Carolyn said. “We wanted to leave something better in the (Iuka) community. What are people actually going to remember? We were working on the buildings not knowing what was going to be inside.”
Carolyn calls herself and her husband the senior version of Erin and Ben Napier of Laurel, Mississippi, also a husband-and-wife team and stars of the television show “Home Town,” except the Terrys don’t have and don’t want a TV show. When she and Henry opened The Apron Museum in September 2006, she had a handful of aprons and opened up the museum inconspicuously, not making a fuss about it.
“We didn’t tell anybody,” she said. “Grand openings are a curse. We just opened. It was meant to be a surprise. There’s not too many surprises in life anymore, and we wanted this to be.”
From there, The Apron Museum took on a life of its own, becoming, in her words, the worldwide mecca for anyone who wants to know about aprons. At one point, someone told Carolyn that BuzzFeed had named The Apron Museum “the weirdest thing to do in Mississippi.”
“I didn’t even know what BuzzFeed was,” she said, laughing.
Now, if they wanted to, she could employ two full-time people: one to run the museum, and one to correspond with folks from as far away as Scotland, Australia and England, all seeking to learn more about aprons. In addition to vintage aprons, The Apron Museum tries to keep interesting, locally made aprons around. It took eight years before she and Henry even put “The Apron Museum” on the museum’s front door at 110 W. Eastport Street in Iuka — that’s how unexpected their success was.
“I knew people collected them, and I had a few,” Carolyn said. “I wasn’t thinking anything was going to come of it. But then it took on a life of its own, which we were not expecting.”
Today, the 1,200-square-foot museum is the only one of its kind in the country.
“We need a whole lot bigger building,” Carolyn said. “It’s not big enough.”
Their notoriety has reached the point now where aprons come in all the time, many from folks of an older generation who can’t imagine just throwing their grandmother’s or their mother’s apron, which was worn every day, into the trash.
“We’re a home,” Carolyn said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people out there inherited aprons. The letters that come with them are just wonderful. We have a collection of cursive, handwritten letters from people in their 70s, 80s and 90s that know how to write. They’re beautiful, handwritten, well-written letters that explain the history (of the aprons). They come in from everywhere. We got one yesterday from England.”
The Apron Museum houses between 4,000 and 5,000 aprons, each with a different story to tell. Some of the aprons go as far back as the Civil War and represent everything from pieces of history to artists’ aprons to a grandmother’s old apron she wore every day to cook meals for her family.
“I don’t know what you’re going to find,” Carolyn said. “You step in the door and look at the creativity. You may have a preconceived idea of what an apron looks like, but, starting from the Civil War forward, you’ll see a whole lot of creativity.”
These aprons represent art, fashion and history, and help us realize aprons are really hidden in plain sight everywhere — from iconic paintings like “American Gothic” to the apron worn by Flo from Progressive Insurance commercials, who donated and signed two aprons to The Apron Museum. The museum also houses World War I aprons shipped from France, World War II mechanic aprons and a large chunk of cheeky aprons worn presumably by housewives in the 1950s with phrases like “To Hell with Housework” on them. The museum, a not-for-profit, gets donations of aprons used as props on movie and television sets, as well.
“The apron is the only man-made object that has been with us as far back as someone can go,” Carolyn said. “Aprons in 1650 pretty much look like ones from yesterday. This is really and truly a history museum, and what they are is conversation starters to help somebody remember that time period.”
For many who donate aprons to the museum, it’s a sentimental parting.
“That’s a theme for a lot of the donations,” Henry said. “They have a meaning to older generations. They hate to see them thrown away or discarded. The common theme is ‘This is a part of our everyday lives. Grandma wore this every day.’”
Carolyn recalls an older gentleman who, when visiting the museum, saw an apron and became emotional because it looked just like his mother’s.
“A lot, lot, lot of memories,” she said. “Anybody who is older flashes back in time when they see them. There’s no other place on Earth you can send your apron and know it’s cared for. People will say, ‘You care about this apron as much as I do.’”
The museum doesn’t keep regular hours, but Carolyn and Henry are on call seven days a week to greet visitors. The best course of action, though — especially if you are coming with a large party — is to make appointments.
“We stay dressed and ready,” Carolyn said. “People call, and we just run right over. We’ve seen people from 27 states so far this year.”
Eventually, Carolyn and Henry would like to donate the museum to a university to keep up with the collection long term. But, for now, the Terrys look forward to the next chapter in the surprising, ever-growing story of The Apron Museum.
“It always evolves and isn’t stagnant,” Carolyn said. “It’s meant to be a surprise. I’m a reader — I’m not going to tell you the end of the story intentionally. It’s meant to be a surprise when you walk in.”