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I came across the word in question in the first chapter of Walden:

He was at first bare and out of doors; but though this was pleasant enough in serene and warm weather, by daylight, the rainy season and the winter, to say nothing of the torrid sun, would perhaps have nipped his race in the bud if he had not made haste to clothe himself with the shelter of a house. Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other clothes.

There are only aprons and coats of skin mentioned in Genesis 3, [...], and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. Given the context of the passage from Walden, methinks bower may mean here something similar to an apron skirt. Sadly, none of the dictionaries I consulted describes any meaning related to clothing. What does bower mean here?

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2 Answers 2

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Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other clothes.

OED bower (n.)

  1. A place closed in or overarched with branches of trees, shrubs, or other plants; a shady recess, leafy covert, arbour.

The bower is synecdoche or metonomy. These are figures of speech in which there is use of the whole for the part or the part for the whole. Thus:

The bower = the things that grow on a bower - leaves.

Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the leaves of the bower before other clothes.

Compare:

"The noise of boots marching in the street woke him" = "The noise of people wearing boots marching in the street woke him". (Boots do not march)

"The army attacked the sentry post." = "a few soldiers attacked the sentry post." (The whole army would not be used to attack a sentry post.)

Edit 20230402 to add support to the above:

There is an entry in the OED for wear (v.)

18.a. transitive. To spend, pass (one's time, a period of time). Chiefly poetic

1809 T. Campbell Gertrude of Wyoming ii. ix A deep untrodden grot Where oft the reading hours sweet Gertrude wore.

However, this would involve

Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other clothes.

meaning

Adam and Eve, according to the fable, spent time in their house before wearing other clothes.

This seems to be (a) a non-sequtur (b) contrary to "the fable" (c) “other” seems wrong – there is no Biblical support for the first clothes being anything other than “fig leaves” – before that they were naked.

It is not until after the Fall and expulsion, that Adam, Eve and their offspring keep sheep (wool) and have a house.

That said we have

"As for a Shelter, I will not deny that this is now a necessary of life, though there are instances of men having done without it for long periods in colder countries than this. […] Man was not made so large limbed and robust but that he must seek to narrow his world, and wall in a space such as fitted him. He was at first bare and out of doors; but though this was pleasant enough in serene and warm weather, by daylight, the rainy season and the winter, to say nothing of the torrid sun, would perhaps have nipped his race in the bud if he had not made haste to clothe himself with the shelter of a house. Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other clothes. Man wanted a home, a place of warmth, or comfort, first of physical warmth, then the warmth of the affections.

And we have

OED bower (n.)

bower, n.1 Etymology: Old English búr dwelling, etc.,

1. a. A dwelling, habitation, abode. In early use literal. A cottage; in later use a poetical word for ‘abode’.

OE Beowulf (Z.) 2455 On his suna bure.

1712 J. Addison Spectator No. 281. ¶11 Our Historians describe the Apartments of Rosamond's Bower.

1810 W. Scott Lady of Lake i. 15 The primrose pale, and violet flower, Found in each clift a narrow bower.

And also

3. A place closed in or overarched with branches of trees, shrubs, or other plants; a shady recess, leafy covert, arbour.

Frankly, it is all too credible that Adam and Eve slept under the trees in Eden.

In the passage, Thoreau describes the need to protect oneself against the elements – a need that did not exist in Eden. This can be done by clothes or a house. Thoreau does say if he had not made haste to clothe himself with the shelter of a house., which can be understood as “protect himself (from the elements) by living in a house” and must refer to after the expulsion, but this does not accord with the most generous interpretation of “wear” in “wear the bower.”

Adam and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other clothes.

Here Thoreau uses “bower” as a pun: the reference to a house is kept, and the origin of the fig leaves is reaffirmed.

The crux is “before other clothes”: there was no house in Eden; there were no clothes in Eden before the Fall.

After the Fall there were fig leaves: Ge:3:7: And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

After the expulsion, clothes are implied Ge:4:2: And Abel was a keeper of sheep - sheep, wool, clothes - and a house is implied: Ge:4:7: If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door – to have a door, one must have a house.

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  • Out of context, this is a very reasonable suggestion — but given the context as noted in [Andrew Leach’s answer], I think that answer is the true one instead.
    – PLL
    Apr 1, 2023 at 18:01
  • @PLL I don't recall Adam and Eve having any kind of shelter in the story about them. Why would they? Eden had the perfect climate and did not require shelter from non-existent bad weather. Or is my knowledge of the story missing some elements? A quick web search suggests there is no consensus about whether there was a dwelling structure in Eden. Perhaps Thoreau believe there was. Apr 2, 2023 at 12:34
  • Yes, a synecdoche for covering their genitals with leaves.
    – Lambie
    Apr 2, 2023 at 15:19
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It's extending the metaphor of the previous sentence:

made haste to clothe himself with the shelter of a house

The house is the first protection from the weather, the first "clothing".

You probably found that bower has such a meaning and etymology:

an attractive dwelling or retreat

Bower derives from Old English būr, meaning "dwelling,"and was originally used of attractive homes or retreats, especially rustic cottages.

M-W

"Wear the bower" has essentially the same meaning as "clothe with shelter". Once that was accomplished, the First Household went on to wear actual clothes due to other problems with nakedness.

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  • I can't find support for your assertion that Adam and Eve had a dwelling of any kind before they wore clothes. The Bible seems to say that God created a clothes for them after their expulsion from Eden, and before that they sewed fig leaves together to wear as clothing. That doesn't mean that Thoreau didn't believe they had a dwelling. Could it be a pun on Thoreau's part? Apr 2, 2023 at 12:51
  • @ToddWilcox It's not my assertion. Thoreau is quoting a fable.
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 3, 2023 at 7:55

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