I promised myself when I was growing up, that I would never “dig in my purse” as I had watched my grandmother do repeatedly when looking for the house key after a day out with me. I have never seen a purse so deep and cavernous as the ones she would carry, except perhaps in Mary Poppins. It had everything in it. On any given day it contained the electric bill and phone bill that had to be hand-carried with her check to each place of business, the grocery list, and the infamous house key.
This past weekend we had our grandchildren. My purse became the carry-all for everything we needed while out. It was too heavy to carry, really, but I had to have the “stuff.” As I was digging in my purse for two quarters (one each for the bubble gum machine), I flashed back to my grandmother and the times I watched her dig endlessly. I get it now. I sorted through the compartments and outer pockets, finally finding the necessary coins.
Other women in the restaurant had tiny little purses with delicate chains and cute closures, but not me. I had the industrial strength canvas bag with zippers and compartments. How do they make it with tiny purses? I have many in my closet and I use them occasionally, but only when I need lipstick and a cell phone. It made me wonder about the history of purses, a history that turns out to be very interesting.
Purses first came into being around the 1500s. Clothing didn’t have pockets back then, so purses were born out of necessity, as a way to carry money and personal items. Instead of shoulder straps, these first purses were attached to a belt or girdle. Toward the end of the 16th century, purses began to be worn on a chatelaine (hook with chains) and were viewed as a status symbol. Around this same period, pockets were introduced into men’s clothing, and the purse market became almost solely focused on women.
In the 1600s, purses were worn under women’s voluminous skirts. These bags were called “thigh pockets” and one was worn from each hip. The popularity of Greek and Roman fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries meant tailored dresses with higher waistlines, moving purses from under skirts to handbags. These bags were handmade from various fabrics and were carried on a cord or chain. Purses continued to become more of a fashion statement, and the Industrial Revolution introduced new materials for the accessory.
The 20th century brought the most outrageous growth in the purse market. More women became employed, and the handbag market created countless varieties of bags for women’s work and social obligations. Many famous purse brands also emerged during this time. Today, we all have our favorite brands and styles of bags to fit the occasion.
What’s your favorite kind of purse?