Artifact Corner: Victorian Purses

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at these beautiful early Victorian beaded purses from our collections. Each bag was hand beaded, and must have taken so many hours of painstaking decoration. The first bag has a scene with a person, a dog, and a church in the background. Beneath it is a lovely flower motif. The second bag is a floral motif with roses, and decorative base. The second bag is topped and lined in a sumptuous blue velvet that is still soft and supple to the touch even though it’s almost 200 years old. Both closed using drawstrings to keep all of your possessions safely inside. Let’s learn more about the history of handbags and purses.

Since the dawn of human history, we have needed to carry things with us as we moved along. Whether that be food or tools or some form of currency, we have needed to carry more than we comfortably can with just our two arms. So, we used bags made of natural fibers, or animal hides to make our lives easier. Otzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old, well-preserved mummy found in the Italian Alps in 1991, had a pouch attached to his belt that contained flint, a drill, an awl, and dried fungus. Another very old example was found in Germany in 2012, and is dated to be between 2,500 – 2,200 BCE, and is studded with dog teeth. Handbags were mostly used by men, and were seen as a status symbol, hence why they were richly decorated. In the Middle Ages, purses and handbags were still mostly the domain of men, but that was about to change in the Elizabethan Era. Women of every social class began carrying bags, in a wide variety of sizes.

In the eighteenth century, purses were small, unisex accessories, used to hold money and nothing else. They had more in common with wallets than what we would consider a handbags. Most women kept these purses in the pockets, which were separate from the actual garments and tied around their waists. According to James Henry Leigh Hunt, a lady’s pocket might hold her purse as well as other essentials, including “a pocket-book, a bunch of keys, a needle-case, a spectacle-case, . . . a smelling-bottle, and, according to the season, an orange or apple.” The dramatic change in women’s fashion in the late 1780s—accelerated by the French Revolution of 1789—put an end to the pocket. Bulky underpinnings would have ruined the slim line of the column like white gowns of the Empire, which emulated the diaphanous draperies of classical statuary. Small, handheld purses called “reticules”—often decorated with tassels, fringe, or embroidery— became essential accessories. The domestic ideal of the Victorian era popularized bags that depicted sentimental scenes with embroidered and beaded images of homes and flowers, similar to the ones in our collections. Women often made their own bags for a personal touch and to show off needlework skills, but you could buy these bags in stores if you did not have the needlework skills to make one. Women’s handbags began to change dramatically from season to season in the late Victorian era. Most of the designer bags that are seriously coveted today saw their beginnings in the early to mid 20th Century. Designers like Chanel, Hermes, and Luis Vuitton set the standards for women’s “it” bag. Today, there is a six year waiting list for a Hermes Birkin bag, if you can even get on the list.

Our two purses are examples of practical pieces that are also works of art. The one purse has a bit of fraying to the top of it, but this is to be expected given its use and age. The velvet purse is in fantastic condition, and looks like it’s barely been used. We are so lucky to have these charming purses in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,