Don’t Leave Home Without It!

A Little History of the Purse!

After a most successful afternoon of e-shopping for purses and handbags, a history of these necessities, and in some cases, obsessions, seems appropriate.

Believe it or not, the real reason for needing a purse early on wasn’t for shopping, but for socializing. As calling on friends in the afternoon was a popular and socially required form of Victorian entertainment, one needed something in which to carry calling cards, a lace hankie and possibly a pencil. These reticules, as they were called, were handmade, so it was also a way for a lady to show off her embroidery and creative skills. And – no need to carry a credit card in Victorian times – one just had items charged to your husband!

Victorian reticules came in many styles and became more elaborate and creative as the years advanced. Square, rectangular and pocket shaped were the most popular as they were the easiest to create and decorate by the average homemaker. Woolen embroidery on silk also gave the reticule texture and interest. The easiest handmade reticule was the crochet or knit purse of silk yarn. They were round in shape, with a tassel at the bottom and a drawstring at the top.  Victorian designs favored the color green, silk crochet, netting, needle crafts, and/or heavy beading. It was also customary for men to carry the same type of purse complete with steel beads and tassel! After the 1850s and 60s, the choice of fabrics greatly expanded to include velvet, raffia and metal. However, ladies were still expected to carry only what was absolutely necessary.

As the Victorian era moved into the Edwardian era, several styles emerged that resembled some of the purses we see today. Leather frame bags with small handles became popular during the day. Additionally, bags attached to the waist were quite the vogue. Some had loops so they could be slipped onto a belt, while others were pinned to the waist by brooches. These bags, called chatelaines, were worn both day and night and were heavily decorated with lace, beads and fancy needlework. It was like having a deep pocket on the outside of your dress. In WWI, nurses used a leather chatelaine to carry medical supplies and small tools. Perhaps, these were the precursors to the 1980s and 90s staple, the fanny pack! As more and more ladies of all classes began stepping out to shop, baskets became popular, as well as the carpet bag style carried by our favorite nanny, Mary Poppins. The carpet bag became especially popular when women enjoyed greater mobility and the adventurous thrill of travel by train or ship. It was large and roomy, but portable enough to be carried by a woman.

The traditional reticule adapted into different forms after the turn of the century. A popular style was the Dorothy bag. The Dorothy bag was made of soft materials and a drawstring top, just like a Victorian reticule. It was often covered in beads and included a tasseled bottom lined with silk, cotton, or velvet, and featured a long cord or ribbon handle that hung at knee level. The beginning of the shoulder bag? Many had a beveled mirror inside the bag, a hidden tool for applying makeup.

Wrist bags also emerged, as well as specialty bags for such occasions as attending the opera. This one had to be made large enough to accommodate opera glasses.

After 1910, Victorian ladies took inspiration from the Far East, and bags in the shape of Chinese lanterns and triangular shapes emerged. The colors also tended towards red, gold, and black with the handles often made of bone.

Another emerging style was the reticule with Native American designs. These reticules were made of soft chamois, or that new fabric known as suede. They featured elaborately beaded adornments and cut fringe.

As purses became larger, the metal purse frame came into being. This enabled the purse to be snapped shut for more security. The frames were embossed with hammered and filigree designs. Many metal frame purses were also made of knit metal. These purses never really went out of style and enjoyed a major resurgence in the 20s when screen printing allowed pictures to be printed on the metal.

Most modern purse aficionados have at least one example of the different purse styles. Or, as the case may be – MANY examples in many colors! Don’t leave home without one!

Sandee is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]