Purses as we know them – accessories for the holding of Stuff – are a relatively new invention. Women in the 18th c. wore over-sized pockets, sewn to a ribbon that tied around their waists, that were hidden beneath their hoops and voluminous petticoats (examples here and here).
But when skirts narrowed to a slender column by the end of the century, there was no place on a fashionable figure to disguise a pocket bulging with necessities, and small drawstring purses soon made their appearances in Paris and London. Often called reticules (a French version of the Latin word for a small mesh or net bag), 19th c. purses could take whimsical shapes and designs, and might be beaded, fringed, embroidered, crocheted, or netted - every manner of handwork embellishment. This was not the place for understatement.
Then as now, a purse was a chance for a lady to exert her personal style, whether the purse was bought at great cost from a Parisian shop or fashioned at home. They weren't large, holding only the essentials. Just as a modern woman will carry a tote along with a purse, her earlier counterpart might have carried a handled work basket or workbag for the excess - or, if she were wealthy enough, she'd simply turn over the extra things to her servant.
The drawstring purse, above, must have made a sizable fashion statement dangling from a chic wrist. The flowers are created from wired chenille - think pipe-cleaners - that make the petals of the flowers curl outward, the drawstrings are tasseled, and the green silk bag is still vibrant after nearly two centuries. (See here for a detail of the flowers.) That long-ago owner clearly took excellent care of her purse, and with such a prize, who can blame her?
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.