The Perfect Purse

July 29th, 2016

By Karen Osburn

Drawing of a early 19th century woman with reticuleAccording to Wikipedia a “handbag, also purse or pouch in North American English, is a handled medium-to-large bag that is often fashionably designed, typically used by women, to hold personal items.”

I am sure that many women can identify with the search for the perfect purse.  For years I have been looking with no luck.  I have found a few that come close, but not one is “perfect.” Sometimes I think the only perfect purse would be one that would hold everything I need for every conceivable occasion and still weigh less than 8 ounces. I am looking for a magical hand bag like the one Hermione Granger has in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  That one held a tent, cooking utensils and who knows what else.

Color photo of a Vera Bradley cross over purseSome years back I lived in a rural area and became accustomed to carrying everything I might need with me if my truck broke down and I were stranded on a back road.  Flashlight, food, water, first aid kit, reading material, extra jacket, comfortable shoes, boots and more were all tucked neatly in my truck where ever I went.  I haven’t driven the back roads in probably 12 years but the “must be prepared” gene is still working overtime.  Aware of this trait, my colleagues and friends have, at times, asked me for everything from a Tide stain stick to a hammer, screw driver, hex keys, masonry drill bit or dental floss.  I have become known as a “go to” person for the unexpected necessity.  Granted, I don’t keep all those things in my purse, but the dental floss and stain stick can be found in the recesses of my handbag.

But what did women do prior to carrying half their possessions around in a satchel?  Good question! Early European culture popularized the use of a pouch or purse for carrying coins.  There was no paper money at that time, coins were heavy and you could not just tuck them in a waste band or sleeve so the coin purse was a great solution.  However, the oldest known “purse” dates back more than 5000 years, and was a pouch worn by Ötzi, the Iceman.  His mummy was found in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps (and dated to roughly 3200 BCE), hence the nickname “Ötzi”, near the border between Austria and Italy.  It was important back then to be prepared when leaving home for a period of time to hunt, fish, visit or just wander and I think a pouch or bag was considered a prudent part of your equipment, much like a knife or spear.

Colored photo a Victorian reticuleThinking about the purse, why would a woman in the 14th century need any more than a small coin purse, if that? Women generally did not travel far and when they did it was usually escorted by a man who could carry the “coin of the realm.”  A handkerchief tucked in a sleeve was probably the most a woman of importance in that time needed to carry.  A servant woman who shopped for her master/mistress or a woman who shopped for herself would need to have a small bag with coins to buy things in the market place, but since there was no need to be gone from her home for long periods of time I would be surprised if women carried much with them outside the home.

For young women of the 1600s embroidery and needlework were necessary skills.  This essential work with thread and needle allowed them to create some beautiful handbags for themselves.  By the late 1700s fashions in Europe began moving towards a refined slender shape for purses and away from bulky or untidy pouches.  The new design was called a “reticule” and was made of fabrics such as silk and velvet and carried by a wrist strap.  As the name suggests reticules became popular in France and later crossed to Britain where they were called “indispensables.”

Colored photo of a Armadillo purseThe “modern purse” developed during the Industrial Revolution when more train travel inspired industrialist and confectionary entrepreneur, Samuel Parkinson, to ask H. L. Cave in 1841, to create some handbags for his wife after noting that hers were not large or sturdy enough to carry her needs when traveling.  Parkinson requested they be made of leather to distinguish them from the bags of the common man.  What Cave created were the first modern handbags including a clutch and tote bag.  Of course there were critics.  People said they were not needed or would break women’s backs because they were made of durable leather.  Cave ceased promotion in 1865, making only the occasional special order purse after that, and did not resume making handbags until 2010.

One way or another purses and handbags “caught on” and they became fashion accessories as well and a handy necessity.  I am certain that one thing which contributed to the increased the use of a handbag or purse in modern times is the amount of possessions we have that we now feel are indispensable.  There is make-up, phones, electronic tablets, house, work and car keys (I once weighed my work keys and they tipped the scales at a half pound), check books, nail files, cards including debit, credit, reward and business, driver’s license, Kleenex, hand cream, Band-Aids, pens, and maybe gum or mints.  These are just the sort of things I have in my handbag.  I have friends who carry food (I had a friend who lost track of a plum in her purse once…yuck), wet wipes, pocket knives, tools, mirrors, small flashlights, and paperback books.  For these additional items you need a very LARGE purse indeed.

A poster listing the various types of handbags.  Images of a structured. crossbody, doctor's. saddlebag, messenger, drawstring, clutch, tote, and  hobo handbags.Do I know women who don’t carry purses, or just very small ones?  Yes, but usually they are driving and leave the remainder of the necessities in their vehicle.  Do I think carrying a purse is a pain?  Yes!  A pain in my back, neck, and shoulders!  However, I am not ready to give up carrying a handbag yet…still; maybe I can learn to leave some of the indispensables behind.  In the meantime my latest attempt at finding the perfect purse just arrived in the mail!

Tagged With:

One response to “The Perfect Purse”

  1. Joanne Wisor says:

    Loved this, Karen! Great history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *