A Brief History of Bags and Purses


Hampshire Cultural Trust holds a delightful collection of several hundred bags and purses from the 18th century to the present day. 

These are ideal for exhibitions about embroidery and beading, or displayed alongside other accessories that were worn with dresses of different periods. Many are also mouthwateringly beautiful as objets d'art, covetable little treasures in their own right, as well as being containers for other even smaller treasures such as silver pencils and gold coins, lipsticks and embroidered lawn handkerchiefs. 

Their colouring - vibrant or muted as fashion dictated - and their diverse materials - variously cold and shiny, or soft and tactile - make them a visual treat for the museum visitor, and presenting them on our website allows the virtual visitor to metaphorically peep into the boxes where they are stored, enjoy their beauty, and unravel their meaning at leisure. 

Unlike our fans collection bags and purses are still accessories of our time, and our examples may inspire future designers and craftspeople. That's the real value of an historic collection which is available for study and interpretation.



The history of handbags and purses provides a fascinating insight into both men's and latterly women's developing need to carry a range of items about with them as they walked around their houses, and travelled away from home, over the last five hundred years or so A bag or purse would enable them variously to secrete small valuables, such as jewels and money, close to the body; to attend to personal hygiene and comfort, with the aid of such as a comb and a mirror; and to engage in a number of pleasurable duties, activities or pastimes of daily life -like writing a diary, doing some knitting or tatting, or playing a card game, to pass time on journeys and when staying away from home, or just when moving to another wing of the house or around the family estate. 

An early form of bag or wallet was the drawstring leather pouch which carried coins, and which was looped through men's girdles or belts for safety. It was a simple development of a circle of fabric drawn up together with two lines of stitching going round the edge in parallel lines in different directions and knotted to make the drawstrings. This was seen from the 12th to the 16th centuries, often worn with a dagger or knife. Such pouches could in fact be stolen by determined thieves who would cut them loose. This suspension of a functional object from the belt has parallels with the medieval 'chatelaine', a chain with keys attached about the waist, which was necessary for housekeepers even when simply moving from wing to wing within the larger houses of England. The chatelaine was revived in the 1840s as a device for suspending needlework and domestic tools, such as a pair of scissors, a tape measure, a thimble case, button hook, penknife, and needle-case from a device hooked onto the waist-belt.

From the 16th century there were also 'sweet' bags for the ladies, which were like lavender bags, made of a variety of available herbs to scent their handkerchiefs, and to disguise foul smelling odours from privy and street. A variant was the metal pomander. Men might carry letter-cases, which were large wallets for important documents, and gaming purses, for counters (and winnings), often with a coat of arms, crest or initials in evidence. They also had tobacco pouches, from the 17th century. For long and extended journeys luggage travelled in large trunks, but the more precious and intimate items were carried about the person. 

Pockets were also introduced into clothes for carrying such small personal belongings. If we look at wardrobe accounts from the 16th century we find that these pockets were actually called 'bagges.' They would require about three quarters of a yard of material, inserted into the side seam, and were at first mainly seen in the garments of royalty and nobility - male and female -,but more and more as an essential part of the main garment. As men's suits appeared from the 1670s, men's pockets transferred to their coats and waistcoats, as very visible functional and increasingly decorative features, to carry a watch on a fob chain, a snuff box, a visiting card case, and a handkerchief. By the 18th century ladies' side dress pockets became so large and so useful for carrying a multitude of items that they were often made separately, and attached singly or in pairs onto a band which tied around the waist. Access to the pockets was provided through slits in the skirts. This is the significance of the children's nursery rhyme,

Lucy Locket lost her pocket, 
Kitty Fisher found it. 
Ne'er a penny was there in it 
Except the binding round it.



Many of these separate pockets have survived in museum collections across Europe, though not all are correctly identified as such! These were effectively bags under the skirt as opposed to visible accessories, and as such are often plain and unremarkable, and look rather like peg bags (which is perhaps what many became). In the 18th century there were flat pochette purses, beautifully embroidered for love letters and bank notes. 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the silhouette of female dress was so figure hugging with the Neo Classical Empire and Regency line, pockets in a garment or beneath it were almost impossible, and would certainly have spoilt the hang of the skirt, so ladies carried delicate little drawstring bags or purses called reticules, or 'ridicules'. These could carry a handkerchief, fan and dance card, a scent bottle, some face powder and rouge, but nothing too weighty. They were traditionally of some lightweight fabric such as pale coloured silk satin, prettily embroidered, or knitted silk. There are clear parallels in style and decoration between reticules and the somewhat larger needlework bags which had emerged to carry wools and tatting and embroidery threads. These are the origin of the Dorothy bag. Later there were drawstring shoe bags and dressing bags and the idea has persisted in P.E. bags and laundry bags.

In the Victorian period an extraordinary variety of types of bag appeared, in fabrics which matched or co-ordinated with different outfits, and which suited different fashionable styles of dress, and demonstrated different needlework and knitting skills. In the 1830s and 1840s flat square or circular bags were quite literally canvases for a range of decorative designs in woolwork and chenille, beadwork and ribbonwork, and ladies' magazines described how to make them.

Small knitted, netted or crocheted silk or cotton coin purses are also characteristic of this period and were known as stocking purses, or 'miser' purses. By mid century these had metal fastenings and the whole was often made of a delicate metal chain, which supported sovereigns and half sovereigns, hence the term 'sovereign purse'. Chamois leather was also used, together with metal rings to secure the coins. Sovereign cases were of circular metal design, with an internal spring to release a coin at a time. It is worth noting that in North America handbags are still called purses, which may refer back to their introduction there from Europe after1800, when they will still primarily coin purses. In the 1870s there was a novelty knitted jug purse, of which Hampshire Museums has an excellent example. 

In the 1870s, with the slim figure hugging skirts of the princess line of the 1870s, chatelaine bags were introduced which were suspended from the wrist or the belt respectively. They sometimes had a little pocket inside for a coin or ticket. These were often made of plush, a thick velvet pile fabric. The same material is also seen on the larger holdalls, which women used for travelling. Then there were carpet bags literally made of canvas embroidered with wool, sometimes known as tapestry, which were immortalised in the story and film of the Edwardian nanny Mary Poppins. Leather portmanteaux, with a flat bottom and expanding sides, on a metal frame with a metal catch, are often called Gladstone bags after Queen Victoria's Prime Minister William Gladstone. Portmanteaux means literally 'carry mantle', and certainly they could be draped with the silk capes popular in the 1840s and the large shawls worn by Victorian women in the crinoline period. A travelling parasol could be popped inside or an umbrella placed lengthwise across the top between the handles. Muffs might also have an integral purse or small handbag incorporated from the 1880s to the 1910s. 

There were specialised bags for different social occasions such as an opera bag for opera glasses, and fan, together with mirror, and powder puff. Whole vanity cases emerged with ointment bottles, brushes and mirror, to act as a travelling toilet bag.

By the early 20th century it had become almost inconceivable for a European woman not to carry a capacious handbag when going away from home for more than a few hours. Unlike hats, which began to lose popularity in the post war era, handbags have persisted, but they have adapted to changing needs in form and style. Cigarettes, cigarette holders and matches were a 20th century vogue which have come and largely now gone. Reading, distance and sunglasses in their protective cases take up a considerable amount of space in a modest handbag. Clutch bags are not the most practical style, but enjoyed considerable popularity from the 1930s to the 1960s for elegant evening soirees. Raffia and patchwork were popular mid century, and a wide range of plastics post war. 

Shoulder bags were introduced during the Second World War when some concealed gas masks in a box-like design, and these - like sword holsters and sashes before them- were worn diagonally, but for most women from the 1950s to the 1990s the shoulder bag rested on the shoulder and hip of one side only - usually the opposite side to the handed ness of the person - (ergonomically unsound), and there have been attempts in the 21st century to reintroduce the diagonal strap -not least because the contents of bags can often now include mobile phones and purses with heavy loose change and a range of other weighty items, from glasses cases and pens to make up bags, mirrors, and hairbrushes, to diaries, and even library books, depending on the size of the bag! There was a vogue in the 1970s for men carrying bags which were like large oblong wallets, and could carry a passport, purse, tickets, tissues, and still attach to a waistbelt if required. These were replaced by or paralleled by 'bum bags' suspended from a waist belt.

The contents of a handbag or purse at any given moment over the last few hundred years would surely bear ready testament to the preoccupations and interests of its owner, and of the age in which they lived. In terms of function, the bag or purse need only ever be of sufficient size and strength to bear its contents, but inevitably the bag quickly became a highly decorated accessory, demonstrating of itself skills in needlework, and making, if home-made, and of a design concept and careful choice of materials, if manufactured or professionally crafted. 

Handbags can wear out, literally with the weight and nature of the objects placed inside them - a sharp needlework implement or hair pin can wear a hole, a host of coins can rub, a stitching can come undone at points of intense wear or friction, or where placed on the ground. Leather (and plastic) bags are still repaired at cobblers.

Designer handbags are the most expensive not necessarily because of their suitability or durability but because of the designer name and its social cachet.