This is another of the special objects I saw over the summer in the Costume and Textile collections at Colonial Williamsburg. All you fans of 18thc. dress will know immediately what it is, but the rest of you might be scratching your heads. What is this oddly shaped article, and how was it worn?
It's a woman's pocket, one of the most common accessories worn by 18thc. English and American women of every class. At that time, pockets were not sewn into women's clothing (as opposed to men's coats, waistcoats, and breeches, all of which had pockets), nor did women carry handbags as we know them today. Instead they stashed all their daily necessities in a pocket like this - a flat bag that tied with strings around the waist.
Most pockets were worn under petticoats (skirts) and dresses, which usually had an opening to make the pockets accessible. Occasionally a pocket might be worn over the skirts for informal or at-home wear. To see exactly where a pocket fit into the process of dressing, see this earlier post; the pocket is tied on right after the stays (corset).
Pockets could be a humble linen bag, or beautifully adorned like this one. The elegant silk embroidery on white linen was probably the work of a skilled, professional embroiderer. Here's the catalogue description from Colonial Williamsburg:
"Teardrop shaped pocket of white linen with a vertical center opening at the front, extending down 8-1/4" from the upper edge. The pocket is embroidered with yellow, blue, pink, and green silk threads through an additional linen layer backing the embroidery. The embroidered design is arranged around a small 6-petal flower at the base of a centered tulip, surrounded by twining scrolls, flowers, berries, and leaves following the shape of the pocket. The date '1737' appears at the lower edge, enclosed by symmetrical scrolls. A chain or guilloche design worked in blue surrounds the opening on each side and borders the curved edges. The embroidery is worked in satin and chain stitches, with some knots. Some of the embroidery threads have worn away, revealing the original design drawn with blue ink [see detail, right]....Originally, waist ties would have been attached on the upper edge; only small remnants of the ties remain."
Pockets fell from favor in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, when the narrower silhouettes and raised waistlines of the Regency era made their use impossible. Instead pockets evolved into the reticules and other small purses of the era. Women began to carry their necessities rather than wear them, and have done so ever since. But the recent popularity of hands-free cross-body bags makes me wonder: are they the 21stc. answer to 18thc. pockets?
Many thanks to Linda Baumgarten, Jan Gilliam, and Christina Westenberger for "opening the drawers" of the collection for me. Colonial Williamsburg has much of their collection on-line here in their E-Museum, and it's constantly being updated as more pieces are researched, catalogued, and photographed. Go explore! Above: Woman's pocket, silk embroidery on linen, England, 1737. Collection, Colonial Williamsburg. Photographs by Susan Holloway Scott with permission of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
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.