“Apron Strings

Yesterday I tied Emmy’s leash around the leg of our butcher block kitchen island so I could cook in peace without worrying about spilling hot liquids on her. She enjoyed teething on a chew stick while watching me work.

This morning in the shower my mind drifted as my mind tends to do in the shower. I started thinking about the possible origin of the phrase “tied to her apron strings.” I am familiar with colonial life here, complete with its ongoing open fire for cooking and heat. Perhaps colonial mothers used a similar restraint to keep their toddlers away from the fire while they worked.

Sadly I have so far been unable to corroborate my idea. The phrase took on meaning long ago, not so different from our current use. Now and for a couple of hundred years it refers to a man who refuses to grow up. Since I believe that most popular phrases had an origin in actual practice, I find that origin unsatisfactory.

If there are any other sleuths out there curious about the phrase, I would appreciate knowing what you find.

Thanks.

26 thoughts on ““Apron Strings

  1. Possibly derived from a 17th century law:

    Apron-string tenure (obsolete)

    A property or estate that is in a woman’s possession. However, her husband takes charge of it when she is alive, and her family takes it over from him when she dies.
    John claimed he possessed a large land behind his house, but that land turned out to be an apron-string tenure.

    This surrounding land of my house is an apron-string tenure. Therefore, after the death of my wife, her family took it over.

    Although this seems to be opposite of how we view “tied to his mother’s/wife’s apron strings.”

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      1. The use of the word “apron” was extended in the 17c. to things which resemble or function like an apron. It was symbolic of “wife’s business” from 1610s. So, an apron, being a protective garment, could also be symbolic of protecting a man or a child. (that is my interpretation of various things I’ve just read!) Tied to the apron strings would afford protection but also captivity!

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  2. When my kids were little, since they were only 15 months apart and always running in different directions, I used what people call leashes. I hear people say how awful they are, either on the childs wrist or backpack type thing, but I always felt safe knowing no one was going to grab one of my kids and take off. I guess if you use it when you are out to constrict movement it is one thing, but I did it so my kids would be safe.

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    1. I did the same thing with my daughter who was extremely active and a wiggler. When we were out, the “leash” allowed her to have her hands free, me to have my hands free, and I didn’t worry about her darting into the street. I got lots of looks, but I didn’t let it bother me a bit. Mine was just a simple harness with strap. Now, they have really cute ones that look like little bears and cats with a back pack!

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  3. I found something similar to Pete’s.
    Wholly dependent on or controlled by a woman, especially one’s mother or wife. For example, At 25, he was still too tied to her apron strings to get an apartment of his own. This expression, dating from the early 1800s, probably alluded to apron-string tenure, a 17th-century law that allowed a husband to control his wife’s and her family’s property during her lifetime.

    I only ever knew it as a reference to a grown man who still lived at home. I recall my grandmother using the term to describe a neighbour who lived at home until his mother died. He was aged around 50 at the time.
    “What will he do now she’s gone? He was alway’s tied to his mum’s apron strings’.

    Best wishes, Pete.

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  4. I always heard the phrase as a person who was still a ‘baby’ after others had grown up. Children who are under the care of a ‘helicopter parent’ have children tied to their apron string.

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