The modern handbag is the descendant of a number of historical bags: the Medieval girdle pouch and almoner, the 18th-century pocket, purse, and work bag, the 19th century reticule and chatelaine.

Like today’s clutch bags, totes, and rucksacks, these ancient bags were designed to carry money and other valuables, sewing materials, books, cosmetics, visiting cards, and pens. Many bags were decorated with exquisite embroidery or beading.

While few examples of these early bags exist outside museums today, they provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of the handbag and an inspiration to handbag designers now and in the future.

Turkish bag made for the European market: red velvet with gold embroidery and drawstring closure. 19th century
Petit-point bag with pink roses on a brown ground, gilt metal frame, and chain handle. 19th century
Silk drawstring bag with embroidered decoration; lined with satin. Late 18th century
Georgian card purse with metallic embroidery. 1770–1780
English silk purse, embroidered on both sides with crewelwork, metallic braid, and sequins. This side shows Archangel Michael. Late 17th–early 18th century