It is interesting to note that when comparing purses to hats throughout history, the purse never reached the height of ridicule which hats did. Maybe it’s because there were other status symbols mankind had to hold simultaneously in the hand – canes, fans and handkerchiefs which were far more fashionable to display.
In fact it was only a little more than a century and a half ago that the purse as a necessity came off the belt, sprouted handles and was hand carried as an important accessory. Handbags were first used by the Babylonians and Assyrians from 1500 BCE to 550 BCE. They were richly embroidered and used for religious ceremonies. Judging from some of the weird rituals history has passed on to us, perhaps it’s best not to know what the contents were.
The ancient Persians had a better idea. Attached or pinned to their golden girdles was a small pouch to hold money. A neat custom was for a ruler to turn over the revenues of a captured land to his wife, and she would tuck the money in the pouch–thus the term pin money which is still a key word in our language today. From early times up through the early 16th century, the purse remained on a belt for both men and women. In the Middle Ages it hung from massive chains or jeweled cord belts as a small pouch to hold coins.
The convenient location made it easy for the wealthy to dip into it and scatter coins to the street beggars. As the human race became more civilized, the pouches were used for rosaries and hand mirrors. The hanging pouch freed the hand to show off luxurious silk gloves which fluttered incredible hand-made lace hankies. Near the end of the century, men replaced chains with black belts. There was an attempt in the early 1500s to carry a purse known as a satchel usually made of velvet and pearls.
It was vogue for awhile, but money bags still continued to be hung from the waist. Making their appearance at this time were pockets. They were placed on men’s trunk hose and waists to hold a new invention, the watch. Evidently they didn’t want time on their hands.
In England pockets were attached to the lining of breeches. Another bag that came into being was of leather for hawking. By now pouches and bags were made of velvet with a metal frame and were heavily scented as it was the rage to have every accessory on the body perfumed. By the beginning of the 17th century, pockets were becoming more useful as containers and the muff, with its inner compartments, was vogue for men and women well into the 19th century.
Around mid-century, the pannier pocket hoop skirt was made with pocket openings so that woman could reach through all of their outer skirts into the hoop pocket.
Because of these new conveniences, bags remained small but were more ornate, made of costly fabrics embroidered in silk, steel and gilt or of colored beads. The beaded bags were crocheted or knitted in heavy silk thread. In the Directoire Period at the century*s end, there was no room for pockets on slim-line clothing. A larger bag, called the reticule [ridicule] or sabretache and chatelaines which contained toilet articles were created as the newest fad to hang from the waist or to be carried.
Babylonian and Assyrian handbag, 1500 BCE to 500 BCE.
– The Mode in Costume
Handbag or sack attached to rope belt, 1320-80, from a tapestry in the cathedral at Sens, France.
– Dress and Decoration of the Middle Ages Traveler with small pouch convenient for distance walking, 1425.
– Costumes and Styles
16thC handbag styles – French lady’s pearl, embroidered and velvet hand bag or satchel, early 1500s; and from England, leather and tasseled game bag for hawking, 1575; and lady’s satin bag hung a metal frame on a girdle, 1590.
– The Mode in Costume
This French aristocrat was the height of fashion in 1779 with outsize purse and hand- warmer muff.
– The Mode in Costume From the Directoire Period: reticule 1800; silk embroidered silk and tasseled sabretache, and striped silk reticule with ribbon and embroidery, both from 1804-20.
– Costume and Fashion and – The Mode in Costume
English Regency styles – embroidered silk pouch bag with beads; embroidered silk hand bag of the 1820s still is popular with 1830 costumes.
– The Mode in Costume In the Directoire Period at the century*s end, there was no room for pockets on slim-line clothing. A larger bag, called the reticule [ridicule] or sabretache and chatelaines which contained toilet articles were created as the newest fad to hang from the waist or to be carried. These bags could be round, fat or square.
They were adorned with tassels, fringe, lace, pipings, ribbons, silk pompoms and elaborately embroidered with what was called beetlewing, applique made of iridescent spangles, usually green, placed on black satin. Darker bags were highly decorated with beautiful bright embroidery or berlin wool–work with hand stitches so fine they could barely be discerned. Sizes of these bags increased or decreased in use according to the size of the skirts, and remained in use well into the early 1920s. Around 1815 there was a shift away from bags as women preferred to carry small money pouches in the bosoms of their dresses.
By 1830 men were carrying a small bag purse, usually of leather or knitted silk with steel beads, tasseled ends and drawstring. From 1840 through 1880 Victorian bags abounded in many shapes, sizes, materials and degrees of workmanship. They can be found in black and vivid colors, in paint box shades of velvet and nickel of heavy, dull black crepe (for mourning) or in ultra bright or dark silks.
Some were of striped silk or perfumed leather or of silver links; adorned with tassels of hot pink or jade green; some had clasps of rare semi-precious stones or topped with mother-of-pearl or were coral-carved in floral and cupid designs; sometimes they were of cut steel or tortoise shell, other times crafted in silver and, in very rare cases for royalty, were sprinkled with diamonds. By mid-century the reticule had returned in silk knitted on a gilt frame with embroidery, applique or painted figures. There was a type of beaded or velvet bag called the money-miser or stocking or ring purse. Victorians particularly enjoyed this long, whimsical-appearing purse and many women made their own.
Purses were knitted, crocheted or sewn into a narrow tube about eight to ten inches long and decorated with beads with tasseled ends; a short slit in the length of the center closed with a slide or two rings (usually made of metal) and gave a comical appearance to the bag. It enjoyed it highest fashion popularity from 1840-60 but lingered on to1880. Most beaded bags during the mid-Victorian period [1850-60] originated in Czechoslovakia with France and Italy running a close second. Bags were made of brocade and other stunning fabrics with beads crocheted or knitted right into the fabric as it was formed, each bead being sewed into the bag individually and thus adding thousands and thousands of tiny stitches to the original creation.
The range of beads was stunning, from glass of every conceivable color to steel to seed pearls to rainbow-colored abalone shells to turquoise crystals to ivory to amber to coral and even scarlet beans. Each radiated special effects and were given names such as macaroni, luster, vaseline , frosty cups or jobs tears. Indeed, the study of bead making is a book in itself.
French miser’s purses, early 19thC, beaded and netted.
– The Book of Costume, Vol.II
The latest Paris fashions to crochet as featured in Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1855.
Leather traveling bag, 1877, and open view, often served as purse and storage combo.
– Harper’s Bazar 1867-98
Tiny hand bags were preferred for walking-out costumes, 1879. Note soft dress colors against bold plaid purse.
– Costume and Fashion
Handsome 15″ beaded opera bag latter 19thC from Austria. Ornate frame is marked with two different crown marks and Ed Schopflish, Munchen [Munich], 800 German silver content. Closeup of fine beadwork and clasp detail, and green figured-silk lining.
– Courtesy Xenia Cord
Victorian beribboned and tasseled evening draw bags, 1881, in plush and silk faille.
– Harpers Bazar 1867-1898
Last quarter 19thC bags with ornate frames. Tapestry has different designs on each side; contains 2 small pockets and mirror; gold gilt frame features rose-shape pushbutton, flowers and basket design; stamped Made in France. Design of paisley bag is outlined with handbeaded tiny steel beads. Silver metal frame is bejeweled with turquoise and red stones with rose ornament. Chain also carries floral motif.
– Courtesy Dana Balsamo The the metal mesh bag dates back to 1876. There were hundreds of elaborate designs with ornate or jeweled frames, chain handles, big tassels and/or tiny ball tassels in exciting vibrant colors. Designs were unique scenes with birds, flowers, houses, country scenes and many had daring geometric pattems which blended with the roaring twenties flapper and deco age. Mandalion Bag Company, Whiting/Davis Company, Evans and Napier made some of the finest, their names to be found inscribed on the frames.
Following WW I, a new type of design was introduced, abstracts applied directly to the mesh and thought to be an early form of silk screening. When bags were held up to the light, one could could see images or scenes, with odd designs and colors emerging. They are considered the most valuable by collectors. From 1873 to the end of the century, they were sharing the limelight with small fabric bags with jeweled mounts and heavy beads; then became smaller and of fabric or leather. A favorite was the pocketbook, a flat-folding, book-shaped purse with compartments.
1894 France – both traveling bag and draw bag comple-ment this cloaked ensemble.
– Harper’s Bazar 1867-1898
Bags c1900-WWI – mesh bag with blue enamel crosses on white enamel background; stamped Whiting & Davis on frame inside. Gate-top silver toned mesh purse features accordian gate when top lid is lifted, and swings open.
– Courtesy Dana Balsamo Abruptly in 1900 there was a trend to the large saddle bag and the sabretache was revived. It was usually of brocade with a long gilt or silk loop to sling over arm or shoulder. However in McCall’s November 1904 issue it was noted that the trend is decidedly in the the direction of smaller types; the day of the extremely large bag is past. In its place have come models that suggest a partial reversion to pocketbook types of ye olden times. A greater emphasis was now being placed on the distinction between afternoon or calling bags and shopping bags.
The carriage bag was a holdover from the previous year but deeper and narrower. The magazine predicted the double frame bag to have a bright future; frame on one side was gilt finished; other side, covered in leather. Its double compartment held mirror, purse and card case on one side while the other side served as a receptacle for parcels, trinkets and valuables. Most desireable was the locking frame which was expected to ultimately displace the current ball and snap fastenings.
Also praised was the model made of walrus and having a braided handle. From 1910 to 1920 bags were recognized as an important part of the costume. For street and sports there were tapestry and leather handbags and for evening, smaller ones of fine beads in exquisite design and color or of gold and silver mesh. For the first time, the fitting of bags was given as much thought as the bag itself. Still with us today are the bags with inside pickets for comb, mirror and change purse.
Handbags for the street and chatelaines for balls and opera in this 1909 Bellas Hess catalog.
Return of the reticule, slim shape to coordinate with the slender styles of 1912 day dresses.
– Costume and Fashion
The always fashionable oblong hand bag and the emergence of the finger purse were offered in pin seal in this 1920 Sears catalog. From 1920 to 1930 great emphasis was given to handbags. Small vanity cases for cosmetics became popular. Handbags became much larger because of the change in lifestyle and social needs following WWI. With the increase in travel to Europe, one had to have a place to carry their passports, now a requirement. Plus the aforementioned vanity case and cigarette case and holder and other miscellanies required a larger purse.
Mesh evening bags were still popular into the 1920s – German silver mesh, 2.5″ x 2.25″ has Art Noveau flowery frame. Stamped German Silver and MJCo in a triangle. Chain attached to a ring to be held by the finger. Size makes it an ideal doll purse. Another small silver mesh,3″x3 has two compartments, attached chain and foursmall balls hang from bottom. Frame is stamped 800.
– Courtesy Dana Balsamo Into the 1930s the flat envelope design prevailed with evening bags being either envelope or pouch in costly fabrics with jeweled clasps or mounts. Every possible leather was used for purses, beautifully lined and fitted with every conceivable gadget. During this period the mechanical slide fastener was perfected and manufactured in just about any color conceivable, and made a perfect concealed fastener for purses.
Up to 1942 the large handbag remained in style, rounding slightly in shape, of fabric or leather to match shoes, and evening bags were smaller but more bejeweled. During WWII years, plastic and cloth, mostly rayon, served as purse coverings due to textile cutbacks and government war restrictions. Yet color and fabric coordination between handbag, hat and garment managed to be an important fashion observance. The sabretache became another convenient war symbol, very sporty looking with shoulder straps and dominated where daytime casual dress was required.
Following WWII the Dior New Look of the late 40s heralded in a long-awaited return to fashion. The wrist strap also returned, attached to a number of shapes and fabrics. Black wool broadcloth bags were introduced, and bags in general were more pouchy and boxy in appearance. Leather was also back as well as decorations of gilt or gold clasps, chains and monograms and martial motifs and insignias, reminders of the military. Another surprise appearance was the chatelaine, swinging from the belt.
Evening bags, smaller, were available in a profuse selection of tapestry, brocade, embroidery and beading. It was said that the woman of means could indulge her fancy in its wildest flight, so beautiful, extravagant, precious and costly were some of the bags. The shoulder strap continued to remain a favorite but more with the younger crowd and sports set, and has never left the fashion world to this day. The 1950s ushered in an age of glamor and luxurious fabrics.
Small faille and corded bags, usually black, were preferred for evening dress events along with the traditional hand bag in sleek satin. The alligator hand bag with matching shoes and fur scarves slung over suits of every fabric imagineable were on display by fashionable women at all daytime functions and occasions. From this time on, as these photos demonstrate, the modern purse has repeated time and again its shape throughout history from pouch to clutch to box to carpet bag to carry-all to shoulder strap.
About the only thing for certain is that the purse will never go back to being hung from a belt – check the items you carry in your purse and then imagine trying to lug it around tied from your waist.
Selection could be difficult with this assortment of attractive leather novelty boxy purses offered in the 1937-39 National Bellas Hess catalog.
Fingertip purses in varying sizes were 1930s chic as shown in Chicago Mail Order Co.’s 1934 catalog.
Purses adapted to the needs of WWII servicemen with combination wallets and wallet money belts. Pouched envelope styles gave the illusion of less is more as the homefront conserved for the war effort with plastic and rayon and old store stock leather. From Sears 1943 catalog.
Godey’s 1855 revisited – crochet your purse with hat to match featured in Hiawatha instruction booklet, 1954.
Sporty plastic shoulder straps dominated the purse market following WWII and into today.
– National Bellas Hess 1952 catalog.
The indispensable cord cocktail and evening bag of the 1950s is still in demand today.
Return of the pouch in leathers and all fabrics such as wool broadcloth and this 1955 navy satin with fancy gold and rhinestone clasp to accompany afternoon and soireé dress suits.
And for the grand finalé, a contemporary version of 19thC cloth bags – these uniquely handcrafted hooked bags feature appliquéd details and bead and button embellishments using a combination of fabrics ranging from hand-dyed wool, recycled clothing and hosiery, cotton knits, silks, rayons, antique paisleys, yarns of all types and manufactured fibers specifically chosen for color or texture. Crochet is used for a loop-over-button closure and multi-strand handle or strap.
– Courtesy designer Tracy Jamar and as shown on chanadet.com Make Your Own Reticule Instructions from Petersen’s Magazine 1857 This is a very pretty design for a reticule.
Materials: green silk, purple morocco [fine soft kid as from gloves] and pasteboard. Cut the bottom out of pasteboard the size you wish, and cover it with the morocco, bringing the morocco a little up the sides as a finish, the pasteboard having first been turned up for that purpose. Then sew on the four pieces of silk, and complete with a drawing string of sewing silk below to match the silk of the bag.
Good Reading – 100 Years of Purses: 1880’s to 1970: Identification and Values, Ronna Lee Aikins – Antique Combs and Purses, Evelyn Haertig – Embroidered Bags and Purse, Sally Milner – Handbags: The Power of the Purse, Eri Morita Anna Johnson – The Silk Purse, Raquel Ortiz – Vintage Purses at Their Best, 1st and 2nd Editonswith Price Guide, Lynell Schwartz – Whiting and Davis Purses – The Perfect Mesh References The Book of Costume, Vol.
11, Millia Davenport; 1948 Collectors World 1970 Costume and Fashion 1760-1920, Jack Cassin-Scott; 1971 Costumes and Styles, Henry Harald Hansen; 1956 Dress and Decoration of the Middle Ages, Henry Shaw; 1998 Harper’s Bazar 1867-1898, Stella Blum; 1974 McCalls Magazine, November 1904 The Mode in Costume, R. Turner Wilcox, 1958 Vintage Fashions, January/February 1990 The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since. Please Don’t Ridicule My Reticule! Purses from Clutch to Lug