View Full Version : men's aprons

04-02-2008, 06:23 PM
This question may seem odd, but here it goes. As seen in a lot of surgeon portrayals at events, every surgeon seems to wear an apron. I have never seen an original image of this. So, my question is two fold:

Has anyone seen an original image of a surgeon wearing an apron, if so, where can it be found?

Was there any differences in men's and women s' aprons? If so, what and where could I find that info?

Thank you for your help with these silly questions.

04-02-2008, 06:32 PM
Maybe the butcher's smock is a reenactorism?
Andy Siganuk, 12th NJVI, Co. K

04-02-2008, 06:37 PM
Thats what I am trying to uncover here. I have never thought of looking into it until recently.

04-02-2008, 06:53 PM
Most images of the day were staged which might account for the lack of aprons,on the other hand it is curious the lack of these photos now I want to look for them also. One primary source to check would be Civil War Museum of Medicine in Frederick Md if any one would know they should.

10th Va inf

04-02-2008, 07:12 PM
My pet peve is seeing a reenactor surgeon marching out with a regiment already be-decked in a bloody smock. I don't think that happened at all. Surgeons might be at a forward dressing or triage station. Stewards would be near the front at a dressing station for sure.
Andy Siganuk 12th NJVI, Co. K

04-02-2008, 08:58 PM
I too find it a little out of place to see a surgeon heading out to a dressing station in a bloody apron, way before the carnage starts, let alone that he would be out of uniform and in shirt sleeves at that point. Even though the medical service was less than the ideal of military decorum at times, as an officer they were still held to a standard of dress and regulations.

I will try to get in touch with the museum, but I am still hoping for info from some of the knowledgeable folks here.

04-02-2008, 10:42 PM
Dear Friends,

When I set up a dressing station I usually wear my full uniform and cary a medical haversack full of bandages while my aid carries my Hospital knapsack and we tie a red flag on a tree of limb. I also carry my CLEAN apron not bloody and my red flag in the haversack as well. It works pretty well.

Luke Castleberry

Regular DOC
04-03-2008, 08:09 AM
Most images of the day were staged which might account for the lack of aprons,on the other hand it is curious the lack of these photos now I want to look for them also. One primary source to check would be Civil War Museum of Medicine in Frederick Md if any one would know they should.

10th Va inf

To my knowledge there is only one exsisting photo that is known to be an actual surgery being performed almost all the others were staged. So I wouldn't really look to photos I would look at other sources. We kinda have to use some thinking on this one the surgeons would have had to have used something otherwise they would have been replacing their uniforms after every battle. Having said that likewise we can only theorize until we can find a reference in a diary, letter, or supply request or even an exsisting example. "Quick Robin to the bookshelf!"

04-03-2008, 10:20 AM
The butcher's smock is definitely a reenactorism.

This conversation (http://www.cwreenactors.com/forum/showthread.php?t=7073) started out with bloody sleeves but inevitably segued into the presence of aprons and the appearance of same.

The difference in men's and women's aprons are noticeable. Women's aprons tended to be cotton, sometimes different colors and/or patterns, have a bib which was pinned to the bodice with straight pins. And of course it was cut to cover a dress front, not grungy trowsers. Men's aprons tended to have a straighter cut, a neck strap for the bib, and came in several different materials - leather, canvas, finer cloth, or whatever was needed for the trade in question. Blacksmiths and printers, for example, needed leather aprons of dark colors because those aprons would protect from the ink stains or burning cinders after a strike on the anvil. A waiter or barkeep, on the other hand, needed only a basic apron to guard against food and drink spills and drips.

The debate will probably shift to "what sort of apron was worn by surgeons in the field?" a couple of candidates have been mentioned. Leather? Rubber blanket or oilcloth? I reckon. I sometimes wonder if someone improvised an apron from an old rubber blanket. Easier to wash than your average snow white cotton canvas, I'd say. but as 2RIV pointed out, there appears to be a lack of candid pictures of aprons out in the field.

Also "conventional wisdom" has the majority of the medical reenactors wearing the white aprons, so if you attended an event in a (possibly) accurate leather apron, you are going to have to defend your "heresy" from the mainstream, and reassure the amused crowds of visitors that no, you are not Leatherhead.

Regular DOC
04-03-2008, 11:55 AM
I sometimes wonder if someone improvised an apron from an old rubber blanket.

I had a thought about doing that myself but not from an actual blanket but ordering a yard or two from a sutler and making some. But the price is a little steep right now for me so I got some Canton Flannel from NJ Sekela and tape to make the ties and neck strap. I am wondering would these have been issued or just made purchased by the Surgeons. If they were issued there has to be some quatermaster records somewhere.

04-03-2008, 12:28 PM
Somewhere in my files is the zillion "gotta-haves" list the Med Department insisted on equipping each already-overburdened surgeon and his steward. I cannot remember if aprons were on said list or not.

Such lack of knowledge is a result of focusing too hard on paper ephemera at the expense of the practical stuff on the back of Aurentieth's Department Store display.

04-03-2008, 01:03 PM
There is no reference to aprons in the Medical Regulations of the Confederate Army, even though it contains listings of all drugs and other authourized supplies including bedding. There is also no reference in Chisolm's 1864 manual to aprons, even though it too contains listes of supplies for a regiment in the field in its medicine chest and store chest. And finally, aprons are not listed on the Confederate printed "Invoice of Medicines, Instruments, Hospital Stores, Bedding, &c" which was used in 1863.

Has anyone done any looking at primary source invoices and reports other than the ORs?

Marylander in grey
04-03-2008, 06:32 PM
I, in my humble opinion, would say that Laundress' were employed by both Armies.
Surgeons would not have stopped thier craft for a trivial change of clothing until thier work ,at which time thier Stewards would have established a more permant hospital senerio, in which laundry services would be at hand.
Also the baggage would have arrived allowing for fresh clothing. I agree with Noah and suggest further research into common everyday wear for thier civilian counter part.
Thank you Harry for doing our homework for us well done.

04-06-2008, 05:58 PM
By the way Godwin of "Sutler or Mt. Missery" sells leather aprons as well as some good looking fleams and turniquets.

Luke Castleberry


04-07-2008, 05:56 AM
Godwin's stuff is eighteenth century. That's not a bad thing, just a thought.

04-07-2008, 07:01 AM

What about operating in one's uniform coat? My understanding is that in the civilian world, surgeons regularly operated in their frock coats, and used the tails to wipe their scalpels, etc. According to some of the work that I read on Semmelweis's campaign for antisepsis, not only would a surgeon have a professional coat that had dried blood and bits of human detritis on it, some were judged as more expert by the sheer amount of dried gick on their coat tails.

One of the big resistance points for the impelementation of Semmelweis's reforms was that he didn't allow them to wear these coats into surgery, thus halting their ability to increase their public credentials, as their coats then couldn't accrue more and more dried blood and etc. Semmelweis was practicing in Vienna, but wasn't this one of the premier medical training grounds?

Any evidence of American doctors doing the same sort of thing? And would military surgeons have been allowed to do this or would it have interefered with "spit and polish?"

Karin Timour
Period Knitting -- Socks, Sleeping Hats and Balaclavas
Atlantic Guard Soldiers' Aid Society
Email: Ktimour@aol.com

04-07-2008, 08:14 AM
Any evidence of American doctors doing the same sort of thing? And would military surgeons have been allowed to do this or would it have interefered with "spit and polish?"

That's a good question.

Military surgeons had to purchase their own uniforms. Thus I can see an argument not to wipe scaplels on their tails. Plus, the coats are dark blue, not black, so any detritus left on there would show up, and make it somewhat disconcerting to the patients. (This is similar to an argument we hada while back regarding the presence of blood on clothing.)

On the other hand, if this was common practice among physicians here in the States, then I could see a reason for surgeons to carry on the habit. I wonder if this practice was the seed of the derogatory remarks on the poor state of medical care in contemporary accounts? Those accounts need to be read with a grain of salt - often they are written based on fleeting glances and without always understanding the whole context.

04-07-2008, 10:43 AM
I was at the medical museum in Frederick a few weeks back and don't recall seeing any of the displays illustrating the use of aprons by medical officers. I went back to the website last night and none of the displays show medical officer wearing aprons, including the surgical displays.

Another thought.... What was the time from the wounding of the soldier to the time he saw medical treatment? Presumably anyone with a severed artery would bleed out before he reached a field hospital. And anyone suffering severe blood loss would have a resultant lowered blood preasure stemming the prolific flow of blood....In the 19th century there were no IVs or blood transfusions, which today would maintain blood preasure....

With the complete lack of any evidence that aprons were issued in regulations and invoices, perhaps it was towels, which do show up in regualtions and invoices, which were used to clean hands, etc... as needed...

Robert A Mosher
04-07-2008, 10:48 AM
During a visit to the Massachusetts National Guard archives last January, I obtained copies of the surgeon's requisition forms for the early war period as the regiment was being raised and equipped and items were requested of the Massachusetts State Surgeon General. A number of these requisitions are in the nature of preprinted forms listing all of the supplies with the appropriate blank spaces for indiciating amounts ordered or recieved, etc. This set also includes some records for material received such as hospital supplies that includes beds, bedding, etc.

No where on any of this paper work is there an entry for aprons or any other item of clothing. If this was ever an issue item it would appear that it was issued by some other authority than the Medical department.

Robert A. Mosher

04-07-2008, 05:54 PM

I think the spurting blood is a bit over played by most surgeon portrayals. Having witnessed first hand arterial and venous bleeds of all shapes and sizes, rarely does blood fly across the room, although it can shoot pretty far on occasion. Your mention of injury to time of treatment brings this in to closer perspective in the sense that the decrease in systemic blood pressure usually (i say this because every rule has exception) does not make this spraying of blood a lasting effect. In my personal experience, you get one or three good squirts then it winds down to a steady flow. Usually the spray only happens at the onset of the injury and only when it is a small wound into the artery. The larger the wound, the less resistance.

I was more thinking of the apron as a surface to wipe instruments and hands on, but towels would work just as well. I wanted to see if there was any evidence out there to back up what I suspect is totally a reenactorism. I do this because I like to give the benefit of the doubt before I say it is not correct. I would also believe (from personal experience) that one becomes quite adept at keeping clothing clean while working with bodily fluids. Common sense (although I could be wrong) is who would want to smell that all day and ruin a perfectly good coat.

04-07-2008, 07:27 PM
It's a few years later (1875), but there's Eakins' painting The Gross Clinic.


Boggles my mind that these guys didn't even turn back their white cuffs!

A decade passes, and in the 1880s at the Agnew Clinic, by the same painter, there's white aprons, coats and smocks galore: http://www.bumc.bu.edu/www/busm/sg/images/agnew_.jpg

In looking for period photographs of surgery, I ran across the following pair of images, which I'm not familiar with. By the way, I didn't find any aprons.

Same guys, different poses, but apparently showing different steps in the same amputation:



On the pro-apron side, check out page 31 in Dr. Gordon Dammann's Pictorial Encyclopedia of Civil War Medical Instruments, Vol. II. Four "hospital attendants with a staff chaplain," and all of them wearing half aprons. Why the chaplain too? I'm wondering if it's misidentified, and it's a Masonic thing? The picture's too poor to see if there's any detail on the aprons.

Also, a Frenchman visiting Guy's Hospital in London wrote that in England, 1859, female nurses did the hands-on work during official visits, but in France the male students "to whose care the wounded are confided, and who themselves wash the parts, change the dressings, and assist the Surgeon in putting up the fractures... cover their worst clothes with a white apron."

Similarly, a German visiting Edinburgh noted the "calmness and elegance" of the surgeon and "wished that some of our surgeons who are in the habit of tucking up their sleeves and donning a large apron before commencing an operation, had been spectators." http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA541&id=DBsCAAAAYAAJ&as_brr=0&output=html

So there's some evidence of civilian aprons in other countries, but I haven't run across good examples in America yet.

I'm curious now when the cliche of the Civil War surgeon in an apron began, if indeed it's a later myth. It's not just a reenactorism, as a modern google books search will show: it's all over in fiction and narrative history. http://books.google.com/books?lr=&output=html&as_brr=0&q=%22civil+war%22+surgeon+apron+&btnG=Search+Books

Hank Trent

04-07-2008, 07:54 PM

It seems all too common for "historical works to be filled with grevious errors.

For example, the often quoted "Doctors in Gray." On page 23 the author "quotes" Army reglautions describing the Confederate medical officers uniform including a cap with the letters "M.S." embroidered in gold on the front of the cap. The author clearly never read a copy of the Confederate Army uniform regulations because nowhere does it mention such cap device. Yet hundred of people buy the book and read what it says and takes the written word to be fact. And still other "researchers," not content with primary source research rely on Mr. Cunningham's "expert research" and list him as the source for their research. And before long everyone is writing the same thing.

I would think that for armies which kept track of every single item which was issued to the troops, for the apron, which "popular immagination" has come to look to as a required item for ever medical officer attending to the kool-aid man, there would be at least some reference in official papers, requistions, etc as to this item being provided to hopsitals or regimental medical staffs.

Robert A Mosher
04-07-2008, 09:48 PM
Out of curiousity, I went to Google Books and did a couple of different searches with combinations of surgeon, apron, etc. and even narrowed the dates to 1700 to 1880 (to capture memoirs, etc.). The results included enough different dates and both fiction and non-fiction works to show, I would argue, that the image of the surgeon's apron was already a well-established one both in the public's mind and also in the profession. However, there was at least one book on surgery and medicine that appeared to imply that in a peacetime hospital, those attending a surgeon and not the surgeon himself would wear white aprons.

Unfortunatley, there was little in the results that would help clarify whether the apron was general a personal purchase of the surgeon like the rest of his wardrobe or even considered to be so humble as to be regularly thrown away and replaced with a new one, like bandages, etc.

Robert A. Mosher