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


Florentine work stick pocket, probably from Chester County, PA. Executed in shades of red, blue, and yellow, and initialed “SI;” repaired

During the 17th century, dresses had full skirts; this made it possible for women to carry items such as smelling salts, mirrors, fans, and even small liquor bottles in their clothes without ruining the silhouette. To do so they used flat pockets, usually pear-shaped or oval with squared corners, which were tied beneath the skirt at each hip and could be accessed by slits in the skirt fabric.

It was not until the 1790s that fashions changed radically and bulky pockets became impractical. The popular new “Empire” dress was too sleek to conceal belongings; however, women were reluctant to give up the convenience of having their precious things readily to hand. The solution was to take pockets out from under the skirt and carry them by hand. Thus the modern handbag was born.


Figural beaded bag with gilt metal clasp and
chain handles. Early 19th century

Figures and animals have been favorite motifs since the 18th century, when bags first became major fashion accessories. As the production of samplers and other pretty fabric items became a popular leisure pastime, carefully worked figural scenes began to appear on ornate needlework bags. Beadwork bags were also adorned with complex figures and animals; these bags, rather than bags with floral or abstract bead designs, are the ones that most attract collectors’ attention today.

From 1910 to 1930 designs were inspired by flowers, chinoiserie (oriental motifs), eastern carpets, romantic medieval castles, and Venetian scenes. The images were often taken from popular prints or famous tapestries.

Exported from France, Germany, and Italy, these bags were time-consuming to make and import, and therefore costly when new. They still command higher prices today, especially if they have survived in good condition.


A beaded miser’s purse with roses decoration and ormolu rings and balls.

An early take on the unisex bag, the miser’s purse first became popular in the late 18th century. Also called a stocking, ring, or long purse, this bag was designed to hold coins. The bag gained its name because it was difficult for people to take money from it.

The miser’s purse was generally long and flat in shape and was sealed around the edges. The middle section, which was left undecorated, had a slit for access; it was gathered by sliding rings, thus forming distinct pouches at each end. Sliding the rings closed would securely store the coins in the pouches. In some bags, the two ends were differently shaped, and were probably intended to store two different types of coin. Bags were often made from crocheted or knitted silk thread and decorated with cut-steel beads.

By the late 19th century, miser’s purses had largely been replaced by leather purses; however, patterns for making them appeared in women’s magazines right up to the early 20th century.


Beadwork purse, hand-worked on black velvet with flowers
and the name “Emily M Hollister.” c.1810

The ability to sew has historically been seen as an important accomplishment for refined young women and an essential skill for less wealthy ones. Frames and handles for bags could be bought separately for the creative-minded to embellish at home.

Each bag could be designed to complement a favorite outfit and would be unique. Home-made needlework bags are perhaps the easiest to come by; figural and landscape scenes tend to catch collectors’ eyes, especially if the delicate material shows little sign of damage or wear.

In the 20th century, a growth in leisure time, and the high price of one-off designer accessories, ensured that people continued to make their own bags. During the Second World War, women created bags from fabric scraps, beads, and costume jewelry.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the fashion for hippy crafts led women to decorate shop-bought bags with needlework, stickers, or découpage. The craze for customization shows no sign of dying out today.


Painted and finely woven reeded basket purse with two swing handles, from Lancaster County, PA. 19th century

The technique for weaving baskets from natural materials, such as straw, wood, and leaves, has been practiced around the world for thousands of years. The oldest woven baskets still in existence originate from Egypt and are thought to be over 10,000 years old.

During the 19th century, makers in the US produced a wide variety of woven baskets. Various shapes were developed, for practical uses such as collecting eggs or carrying flowers.

Toward the end of the century, baskets started to be made as tourist souvenirs. These included Nantucket baskets, which have become one of this island’s signature products. The baskets are based on the shape of a traditional barrel and may be embellished with scrimshaw plaques. They are still made by Nantucket craftsmen today.

Baskets made elsewhere in the US could be decorated with a painted design or woven with alternating bands of colored straw.

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