by Sophie Wu
Black and white checked, with red “x” embroidery within white checks, the gingham apron is neatly sashed on a mannequin, a centerpiece in a display window showcasing Southern cookbooks.[i] The evenly spaced checks provide a naturally gridded background for the placement of cross-stitches, which run along the waistband, pocket hem, and skirt, where they form a triangular pattern. Looking closely, no one single cross-stitch is identical with another, suggesting handwork. Despite faint yellow stains on the fabric, the apron looks new, as if it has never been worn. The combination of an apron and cookbooks makes perfect sense, on one level, in their association with a kitchen setting. This particular gingham apron, however, is part of the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library.[ii] It was made by Annie Britt (Blackwell) Sharp (1884-1971), mother of Susie Marshall Sharp (1907-1996), the first woman in the U.S. to be elected chief justice of a state supreme court. It therefore has meaning on a second level: It speaks to Southern expectations — expectations a mother had for her daughters and granddaughters.
Every woman in the extended Sharp family owns an apron made by Mrs. Sharp.[iii] Each piece she created seemed to evoke her hopes for the female members of the family to become dutiful wives and mothers. An intentional construction of femininity and a tie to the universe of kitchen, the apron was meant to be worn to serve and protect. Mrs. Sharp’s expectations were fulfilled, except by Susie Sharp, who never married or had children. While an apron might have been an indispensible part of other women’s wardrobes, what was indispensable to Susie Sharp was her judge’s robe.
Mrs. Sharp sewed. She collected sewing materials from the American System of Dressmaking of the American College in Kansas City, Mo.; a fabric sample catalog from Gluck Mill, Anderson, S.C.; and an apron scrapbook with pictures of aprons clipped chiefly from sewing pattern catalogs.[iv] Growing up in the family house in Reidsville, N.C., the Sharps’ children would go to sleep at night to the sound of their mother’s sewing machine.[v]
But the gingham apron in question was made by Mrs. Sharp at the age of 83, when she was living with her daughter Florence Newsom in Winston-Salem, after falling critically ill and having gradually lost her memory.[vi] She was kept busy by her daughter making aprons for everyone. Her mind might have failed, but her expectations for her daughters to attain domesticity remained unwavering. Her fingers still retained the memory of sewing, a series of rhythmic gestures that had long become rooted in her fingertips. She could have simply fashioned a plain gingham apron, saving the trouble of adding all the cross-stitching. From a utilitarian perspective, a plain apron would serve the purpose of protection as well as an embroidered one. For the Southern housewife, however, functionality wasn’t good enough. Things in her kitchen had to have character, appeal to the eye, and emanate homespun glamour. They had to be luxury items.
For the Southern housewife, who dedicated almost all her time and energy to running her family, home was her workplace. The amount of work ethic and dedication required for her job was no less than that in any other professional setting.
Plain-woven, gingham is a cotton fabric where the vertical yarns (the warp) go against the horizontal yarns (the weft) to form a checkerboard-like pattern, usually of white and a bold color. Each weft thread crosses the warp threads by going over one, then under the next, and so on. There is no right or wrong side in gingham as it has the same appearance on both sides. The name gingham comes from the Malay word, genggang, meaning “striped.” Exported to Europe in the 17th century and from there to the American colonies, the fabric originally came with a striped pattern. In the 18th century, textile mills in Manchester, England, as well as in the southern U.S. began manufacturing it into checked patterns, which have since become increasingly prevalent.[vii]
Durable, easy to launder, and inexpensive to produce, gingham caught on in the U.S. in the mid to late 19th century. It found its expression in clothes and home furnishings; summer dresses and aprons; children’s wear and tablecloths; and shirts and picnic blankets. The cross-stitched gingham apron was a popular “kitchen staple” in the mid-20th century.[viii] Gingham is associated with nostalgia for simpler times, homey and rustic. Perhaps one of the most iconic gingham garments is the pale blue pinafore dress Dorothy Gale wears in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Just as for Dorothy, who said “there’s no place like home,” home is gingham’s warp and weft.
The black and white checked pattern on the gingham apron could be an emblem of racial matters in the South during Annie Blackwell Sharp’s lifetime. The black and white threads were distinct, yet very much interwoven. A strong segregationist,[ix] Annie Blackwell, whose grandfather was a landowner and slave-owner, was descended from Southern aristocrats. Though her family fortune declined during her father’s generation, she’d never forgone her “rightful” status but retained a sense of determined gentility throughout her life. When appraisers came to her house to value the family’s possessions after her husband declared bankruptcy, Mrs. Sharp “stood very tall [and] used her company manners and voice.”[x]
Annie Sharp might have drawn strict boundaries in race, but not so much in gender roles. The fabric of her life might appear very different from her daughter’s — one built in the domestic, feminine realm while the other professional, masculine arena — but it was in fact reversible, just like a piece of gingham.
The warp threads in the mother’s life could have signified her duty as a Southern housewife: bearing and raising seven children, cooking for the family, cleaning the house, and tending the garden. Then each weft thread, carrying her adamant belief in education and hard work, would have woven up and down through her daily routine. Mrs. Sharp worked as a teacher at Mr. Sharp’s boarding school before they got married. She made sure her first born, Susie Sharp, understood that “honesty, integrity, and industry were almost as good as aristocracy.”[xi] Having set an example for her children as a working woman, she shared with her husband the view that all women should be prepared to earn a living.[xii] Annie Sharp worked on and on. As advanced as her age was, at 78, she was reported by her neighbor to her daughter as sitting on a pillow hoeing in her garden.[xiii]
For Susie Sharp, on the other hand, her pursuit of a legal profession was the anchoring warp. Venturing into a field traditionally reserved for men, she made it all the way to be the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1974. Though Judge Sharp was viewed by contemporaries as the quintessential spinster, who had sacrificed marriage and family life for a successful career, her life was never detached from domestic affairs. It was she, the eldest child of the Sharp family, who helped her mother raise her siblings. She shouldered the burden of managing the family farm after her father’s death, visited her mother almost every weekend, and looked after a growing number of nieces and nephews. Such domestic responsibilities were the weft threads of her life. Did Susie Sharp fail her mother’s expectations by not getting married, or did she transcend her hopes and accomplish even more? Or is that the wrong question to ask? Perhaps the question should be what her apron says about expectations for women and where it stands in the readings of Southern womanhood.
The Southern cookbooks exhibition is over. The gingham apron, wrapped in acid free tissue paper, has been stored in a box and filed back into the collection.
[i] The exhibition, titled “From Brunswick Stew to Barbecue: The Cookbook as Cultural History,” was showing from June 18 to October 4, 2015 in the North Carolina Collection Gallery at UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library.
[iii] The gingham apron on display was donated to the Wilson Library in 2009 by a member of Susie Sharp’s family. The person stated that Annie Sharp made aprons for every woman in the family.
[v] Anna R. Hayes, Without Precedent: The Life of Susie Marshall Sharp (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 17.
[vi] Ibid., 321.
[vii] For a history of gingham, see http://www.britannica.com/topic/gingham; http://visforvintage.net/2012/09/11/gingham-fabric/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gingham
[viii] Judy Florence, “Aprons of the Mid-20th Century: To Serve & Protect,” Antiques & Collecting 107, no. 2 (2002): 23.
[ix] Anna R. Hayes, Without Precedent: The Life of Susie Marshall Sharp (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 2008), 19.
[x] Ibid., 14.
[xi] Ibid., 10.
[xii] Ibid., 26.
[xiii] Ibid., 300.
The history of chess pie comes as a variety of colorful stories. One story goes that the name was derived from Southerners’ dialect: It’s jes’ pie (it’s just pie). Another suggests that the dessert could have first been called “chest pie” because it kept well in pie chests at room temperature. Still another says that it was because a lemon chess pie was a close cousin of the traditional English lemon curd pie, often called “cheese” pie.
The following recipe was found in Susie Sharp Papers, 1900-1997, typed out by the judge.
1. Mix together lightly:
- 1 1/2 cups white sugar
- 4 oz. (1 stick) butter or margarine
- 3 tablespoons cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons pastry flour
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2. Add 6 egg yolks and mix in well.
3. Add 1 cup warm milk and stir well. Let stand 30 minutes; pour into pastry shell.
4. Bake at 350°F-370°F until firm or about 40 minutes.
5. Tests: Insert silver knife. If it comes out clean, the custard is done. Shake pan gently. If custard shakes like liquid, it is not done.