The History Of Purses

Phyllis Lifestyle 35 Comments

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?

Comments 35

  1. My sister and I had purses that were small leather bags with the ball snap closure. There was a little round leather disk that was monogrammed. We would give anything to find these again. Originally from Rosenburger’s in Birmingham. Everyone carried them in high school. They hung one your wrist and were just the perfect size.

  2. How funny I too carry a large purse, I have been putting it in the trunk of the car only taking out my wallet. I have stopped bringing my purse with me because I’m tired of mom, or honey, can you put this in your purse. Now that spring is upon us It’s time to switch out the purses.

  3. What is it about purses, that we all have a interesting story behind them… I too, have a few from all of the above wonderful stories & memories we all had, like the one Pocket Book with a small silk coin wallet attached to the inside from my Grandmother, to my High School days, of Tooled leather, Tapestry, Coach and large Hobo Bags…Then their are the Date Night Clutches, long chained Channels and hard Tortoise type shelled purses….And now being a Grandmother myself, I find my purses hold a bit of all are past. Now I carry a hanky from my Grandma and extra tissue, a mirror from my Mother, a silver pill box from a Auntie, and some mints for the Grandbabies (they just love mints) and a small pink leather wallet, that I should replace but can not find the size or style anywhere…

  4. So interesting. I can also judge my mood, whether harried or calm, by the state of my purse. Aren’t we interesting people!

  5. I admit I am a purse collector! I HAVE to have a purse to match every pair of shoes I have. Also those that I’ll probably find a pair of shoes to match… I haven’t counted them, but sure it’s well over one hundred. Yes, they do take up a lot of space. I have a tiny pearl encrusted evening bag I carried to my first prom when I was a freshman in high school , 1957/58. The pearls used to be white but through the years have mellowed to a lovely ivory, even though it has been in a drawer all the while. I have several female relatives who carry the suitcase size purses. I cannot understand why!! Personally, a small one will hold all I need for the day!

  6. Great story about purses. I carry a large purse to church on Sunday because there is a little boy who leaves his parents and comes to sit with me and my husband. I have all kinds of quiet things for him to do while Mass is going on. He is such a good boy. The people that sit behind us call me Mary Poppins. In fact one of the women who sit behind us gave me a glass mug with a picture etched into it of Mary Poppins. Thanks for all of your great articles. ritatea

  7. I have damage to some discs in my back and find carrying big bags a thing of the past. I am fond of Vera Bradley hand bags etc.because they are made of light weight material. But I also inherited many classic purses from my mother that suit every season and occasion. They never seem to go out of style. I’m trying to carry less but it’s not always easy so I have a couple of stylish backpacks for the days that I might need more room. I like the ones with multiple interior pockets so I can organize my items…and yet, I still find myself “digging” for my lip gloss or cough candy!

  8. I always said, while some women collect shoes, I collect purses. Vera Bradley is my favorite brand, but really, it’s any purse that strikes my fancy. I always notice what sort of bag, or purse, a woman is carrying. And have been known to stop a woman on the street, to inquire where she got her purse.

  9. Wonderful! Have you ever been to the Cloisters museum in New York? The sarcophogi of some of the ladies depict them with purses on their belts.
    I aim for the smallest possible (though sometimes I use one big enough for my iPad). That way I don’t become the family porter–oh, can you put this in your bag? And can you keep that for me? etc.

  10. My grandmother never carried a “purse.” But, she was never without her “pocketbook.” Hat, hose, gloves, and the ever-present JuicyFruit gum! Such fond memories!

    1. Oh my goodness! Can’t remember the last time I heard or thought of that word!
      Grandmother did not carry a purse nor handbag, but a pocketbook!!

  11. My mother was a very stylish lady, wore hats, dresses most of the time and I always remember a beautiful hanky she would always carry in her purse. Thanks for revisiting such fond memories.

    I try to carry a lovely hanky every time I go out for dinner or special event!

    ~ Mary

  12. This is one of my biggest issues. I carried a large purse with everything imaginable for many years until one day I noticed my left shoulder was a good four inches lower than my right one. In the meantime my neck had started to hurt. You guessed it, the large purses I had lugged around had damaged my neck causing my shoulder and the muscles to hold it up to fail. It’s interesting to note I carry much smaller purses and I found out I didn’t need all of the stuff. Also it cured my husband from handing me everything he didn’t want to carry. One more thing, I hate to also see people fiddling and fiddling (digging) in their purse. My issue!

  13. I so enjoyed reading today’s posts!! Thank you, Phyllis, as always for your thoughts and the memories they bring to all of us! I laughed when I thought of my dear dear grandma and her (I have everything) purses. I admit I shed a tear at the end of Debbie’s post…for I miss my mom sooo…

    But we are free to share our thoughts and memories… laugh and yes… shed a tear here and there.

    Thank you all sooo much for the memories… yours and mine.

  14. My 60+ purse collection includes a navy blue crocheted purse that belonged to my grandmother which I love and which brings back memories of her. All of my evening bags belonged to my mother, except for a small, silver clutch that I carried at my high school prom – more years ago than I care to remember – and which is still in style!

  15. Loved this post! I love the older purses that most of the time are more like pieces of art. I have a small collection of what I call “church purses” because they are so small they are only useful for carrying to church. I wish I had the place & money for a larger collection! Thanks for the bit of history!

  16. Delightful post and notes that have been shared! What memories they evoke.
    I have a small collection of cordé purses; loved them from the time my parents gave me one while I was still a teen because I loved Mother’s. Now I will have to look to see if any are marked Fedwa. Two things about my relationship to purses have always amazed me: small clutch or large carryall, I function equally well with either and I ALWAYS carry a should bag on my left shoulder.
    Hmmm, isn’t it time to shop for a new Easter handbag?

  17. Most days I wear my small crossbody bag that has the perfect number and size pockets to neatly organize what I carry. I carry only what I truly need and use now since I had to go through physical therapy for an inflamed rotator cuff. It’s amazing how many little things can add a lot of weight to a bag.

    Other than that I have two small purses for special occasions, a hard case silver clutch I bought at a yard sale years ago and a small floral bag a friend brought me from Poland.

  18. Loved this! I started early- there is a picture of me in my high school year book digging through my purse! Of all the things to be remembered for!!i like crossbody (bad shoulder) hobo style purses made of fabric best. I also love soft, plain big leather bags, but usually can’t afford those!!

  19. I loved this post, I too have memories of my grandmother digging through her huge bag to find a candy for me, or a quarter! There is a great Purse Museum in Holland, they have such an amazing collection…each purse is a delight. I love the old, old purses, so delicate and beautifully made. {I think Victoria did an article on it once.}

    Thank you for the sweet memories!

  20. i laughed when I read the title today. You’ve taken me back 50+ years this morning! Do you remember being at Mama & Grandad’s house when Granny Hill was visiting & she let us go through her purse? She had the belt to every dress she’d ever owned, a couple of sets of flatware, crackers & candy, a plate with matching cup & saucer not to mention the assortment of keys & money. We had so much fun until Mama came to check on us. Then Mama got upset because she was worried about what her MIL would say about us! Never mind Granny Hill was having as much fun as us!
    I confess when my grands are around I too pack a large purse. I just hope if they go through it they have as much fun as we did!
    Thanks for this memory!

  21. Your article today hits very close to home and the memories I have of the purses my mother and father manufactured in Laurel, MS. I often come across these unique silk corde purses, “Made by Fedwa,” in antiques stores across the South. My mom learned how to make these unique purses from her parents in New York, and then brought the factory to my father’s hometown, Laurel, MS. They were quite popular, coming in different sizes and colors. My sister and I have maintained a collection of them and have shared with my daughter, grand-daughter, nieces and great- nieces, making sure they have a special memory of their grandmother and great-grandmother. It’s always special to see them on Etsy and in antique shops!

  22. Like my Mom’s purse, my purse is always loaded with items that I have with me at all times just in case I need them. I would love to carry a petite, stylish, sassy little clutch that coordinates with my outfit, and I’ve tried, but where do I store my Kleenex, toothbrush, chap stick, calendar, gum for the plane, mints for the grandchildren, my 9 pens and pencils, a notepad, an assortment of credit cards, change purse, cell phone and keys for every vehicle and house I ever entered? Thanks, Phyllis, for a fun wake up call.

  23. Thank you for the the article and the history of purses. As I read this letter and the comments below it brought a wave of nostalgia to me as well. It made me think of my own paternal grandmother whom I loved so much and of her purses filled with all manner of necessities. My husbands dear dear Aunt, whom I had a wonderful relationship with, passed away a few years ago and I inherited a couple of her purses. Too this day when they are opened they still smell like her. What a sweet reminder this was too me.

  24. I love thinking about my grandma’s purses! I especially remember my maternal grandma’s purse. I can still “smell” it! Was it the gum….or the Wintergreen lozenges…the tissues….or what? It just had this wonderful scent all its own. My own mama passed away 4 months ago, and looking through all of her purses I noticed one thing in common. All of them were empty – except for one lonely Hall’s cough drop. And the smell? Oh….I just put them to my face and drank in the smell of what I had smelled my entire life. My mom. My sweet, sweet mom. How I miss her……

  25. Thanks for the memories as well as the history. I could literally smell a piece of double mint gum as it was being unearthed from my grandmothers purse. Occasionally the gum was Juicy Fruit. Thanks again, Gayle

  26. My question has always been, why do women feel compelled to carry “everything but the kitchen sink,” while men manage quite well with only a wallet (and now the cell phone)?
    Is it because the men are always handing us their paraphernalia, including their ring of keys?

    No wonder our shoulders often hurt!

  27. My husband often said that my Mom’s purse had everything including the kitchen sink. Her motto was always be prepared, because when you are out and about you never know what you might need. She was always digging for that one item and after much muttering she would pull it out and hand it to who needed it.
    Thank you for the info on purses. Very interesting, now if I can only remember it in case a trivia question comes around.

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