The Beginning of Handbags

Learn about the changing history of bags before the modern concept of handbag was born

By Simone Handbag Museum

WORKBAGSimone Handbag Museum

The beginning of handbags

This story introduces bags in various forms and uses from the 1500s to the 1900s before the modern concept of handbags was born. Bags were usually small and made of valuable materials those days. Bags were not for the simple purpose of holding and carrying. Different pockets and ornaments had their own unique uses.

SWEETMEAT PURSESimone Handbag Museum

Sweetmeat purses

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, people in Europe found the Roman culture of enjoying a bath to be dissipated and messy and did not take a bath regularly. When plague spread around Europe in the 14th century, a false rumor also expanded that the human skin would absorb the plague bacteria like a sponge and get sick in a bath. People believed that they would die by having their bodies touch water and contracting bacteria.

SWEETMEAT PURSE (c1580-1600) by UnknownSimone Handbag Museum

They devised a solution to cover up their unpleasant stench. They carried a small pouch holding fragrant herbs and objects of delightful scent. This is how a scent bag was created. In France, this social atmosphere resulted in the remarkable development of perfumes, but common people could not afford to buy expensive perfumes and usually carried a scent bag holding herbs of strong scent.

SWEETMEAT PURSE, Unknown, c1580, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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SWEETMEAT PURSE, Unknown, c1680, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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SWEETMEAT PURSE, Unknown, c1670, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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SWEETMEAT PURSE, Unknown, c1750, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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SWEETMEAT PURSE, Unknown, c1670, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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SWEETMEAT PURSE, Unknown, c1670, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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WORKBAGSimone Handbag Museum

Workbags

Those days, sewing was an important leisure activity for women. Keeping a tidy look all the time was considered as etiquette. Women arranged their crochet needles in a sewing box neat and proper. Their sewing boxes were made in unique and tidy shapes. As sewing boxes settled down as symbolic items of women, women of different age groups used a sewing box and exchanged them as gifts.

A piece of paper was found in a sewing box on display at the Museum, and it holds traces of those days as they were. It reads, “For my lovely Dorothy, with Grandma’s love, on April 10, 1884.” This must have been a grandma’s gift for her granddaughter Dorothy. A sewing box was passed down from generation to generation, being a symbolic and significant item for women.

HANDBAG, Unknown, c1890, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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WORKBAG, Unknown, 1815/1819, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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WORKBAG, Unknown, c1880, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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Journal des Dames et des Modes: vrouwenmode (1798) by anoniemRijksmuseum

Reticules

As Neo-classism was in fashion in the 1970s, the empire-style dress appeared to remind women of ancient Greece and Rome. As the dress was made of gauzy fabric that clung to the body, pockets came out of the inside of the waist not to ruin the dress silhouette. When reticules were first introduced, men laughed at bags dangling in women’s hands and called them “ridicules.” Reticules, however, gradually settled down as a symbol of wealth and attractive item.

RETICULE (1825/1829) by UnknownSimone Handbag Museum

Reticules were usually adorned with beads and embroidery. Many women made a reticule themselves to match their clothes, shoes, and umbrellas. Reticules were small, fashionable, and elegant. Entering the latter part of the 19th century, they grew in size to hold more belongings that women had to carry according to their active public social activities in a stylish manner.

RETICULE, Unknown, c1900, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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BAG, Unknown, 1850/1859, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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RETICULE, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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CHATELAINESimone Handbag Museum

Chatelaine

Chatelaine means “hostess of the castle” in French. It refers to an ornament that women carried around the waist to hold various belongings and objects to run the household those days. In the Middle Ages, women were in charge of domestic economy in a castle from money transaction to children’s education, servant management, and guidance for guests. They thus needed to carry various tools, but their dresses had no pockets. They created a bag to hold and carry their tools in a safe way.

CHATELAINE (c1900) by UnknownSimone Handbag Museum

Chatelaine was received by women with huge enthusiasm for its practicality and ornamental effects. Women would carry three to four practical objects for household affairs around the waist. The types and workmanship were diverse according to their household economy as Chatelaine bags held keys, pencils, memos, knives, scissors, perfume bottles, and silk tape measures.

CHATELAINE PURSE, Unknown, c1910, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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CHATELAINE, Unknown, c1850, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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CHATELAINE PURSE, Unknown, c1900, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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LINGERIE BAGSSimone Handbag Museum

Lingerie bags

Those days, sewing and embroidery were considered as a yardstick of women’s ability to cultivate their feminine side and character and manage household chores and also as decent and valuable work. Many women made lingerie bags to show off their dexterity. Lingerie bags were decorated in various techniques including lace, quilt, embroidery, cutwork to cut away a pattern from the lace background, and embroidery with knots. They were usually made to keep and protect handmade lingerie that could be easily damaged such as a camisole, underwear under short corsets, and petticoat.

LINGERIE BAGS, Unknown, 1860/1865, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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LINGERIE BAGS, Unknown, 1860/1865, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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LINGERIE BAGS, Unknown, 1860/1865, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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LETTER CASE (c1780) by UnknownSimone Handbag Museum

Letter wallets

Letter wallets were made in a similar design to today’s letter envelopes. In the past, people exchanged their news via letters and thus carried their letters, important personal documents, and bank checks in a bag, which was usually made of leather, linen, and silk with embroidery and bead ornaments. In the old days, textiles were very valuable and inherited by later generations of relatives within the family through a will. Of them, silk was the most expensive textile.

LETTER CASE, Unknown, c1790, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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LETTER, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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LETTER CASE, Unknown, c1740-50, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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HISTORLCAL GALLERYSimone Handbag Museum

Take a look at the Simone Handbag Museum in further detail through virtual reality here. here.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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