GAS-MASK BAG (c. 1940)

Imagine scrabbling in your handbag not for a lipstick or a tissue, but for a gas mask!

At the beginning of the World War II, there was a very real fear in Britain and on the Continent that the poison gas would be used against the civilians. During the 1930s Nazi Germany had developed the deadly nerve gases tabun and sarin, and there were disturbing memories of the mustard gas used against soldiers in World War I. Accordingly, at the outbreak of war, the British government issued every civilian with a gas mask, distributing some 38 million in all.

Propaganda posters ordered civilians to carry the gas mask everywhere. The masks came in a plain square cardboard box, with instructions on the inside lied, and sporting a long adjustable strap.

Initially at least, women were much more diligent than men in carrying these little boxes around with them. But very quickly, they tried to make them more agreeable part of their wardrobe. One solution, the cheapest, was to decorate them, covering them with fabric or painting them a color.

Some women went further, discarding the boxed altogether and buying the specially adapted handbags that almost once began to appear in department stores. In some instances, such handbags featured a hidden compartment at the bottom of the bag in which to store the mask. Fortunately, such a finicky arrangement was never put to test.

The bags and the little cardboard boxes were soon stored away and forgotten for the rest of the war.