John Ptak explores the history of the handbag after seeing a photo of 1920 woman, who couldn’t seem to put one down:
The pocket, or handbag, or purse or pouch goes back a long way, thousands of years. But for this scant view of the history of the pocketbook the action begins in the 14th century or so, when pouches with drawstrings were used to haul this and that, attached to the exterior girdle of the clothing of men and women alike. These exterior pockets were switched to the interior in the 16th and 17th century (or so) given the new and voluminous articles and layers of clothing that were in fashion — there was so much material that the girdle or belt could be worn under the clothing with the pouches attached to them there.
The pocketbook that we think of today came into being in the mid/late 19th century … and that article of necessity hasn’t looked back since. It seems to me that the pocketbook of the 19th century might’ve been an advertising platform too for marketing marriagability — the bags were often finely decorated/embroidered, which would show in effect a particular domesticity skill. And then of course the bags just held stuff, too. It would be interesting to see a collection of the preserved contents of handbooks by the decade for 150 years or so — just the contents spilled into a bag and preserved, a version of “the Things They Carried With Them”.
I carry diligently, and often forget, even while carrying, the significance of the handbag. Where did you get it? people ask. I start explaining that I made it myself, shying away from the questions, as the carrier for my cherished objects, for me, was not intended to be a visible vessel itself. To me, questioning one about a handbag — or “bag” — is as if we’ve asked one to make your life story interesting or to give one a field guide to a life. Fair enough, but perhaps an impossible feat in a passing sidewalk moment.