Time Period: Late 18th - Early 19th Century

Category: Accessories, pocketbook

Accession Number: 62.09.03

Donor : Alice Howland


This pocketbook belonged to the grandmother of Miss Alice Howland, the donor of the object. Other pocketbooks like this one were popular during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, especially with women.[1] Pocketbooks were used to carry essential items such as money, make up, and needlework materials. They were also used as a fashionable accessory that affected the appearance of the carrier. This specific pocketbook is a piece of canvas work. The vibrant colors of reds, greens, and yellows were carefully stitched onto a strong foundation, creating the lines of the flame stitch. The foundation creates a durable object, which comes in handy for objects that people use everyday. The flame stitch pocketbook folds three times and also contains a pouch that closes with the pull of a string in addition to an accordion-like compartment. Long strands of fabric are connected to the front which are used to tie the pocketbook closed.


The pocketbook falls into the category of the handbag, a staple accessory, whose evolution can be seen throughout the course of its lifetime. Many differences to the structure, texture, and use of the handbag have been made since its birth in the 1700s.[2] Despite all these changes, the handbag remains an important object. The handbag touches upon many different aspects of dress and textiles, and acts like a little time capsule that provides insight into past tastes in dress and appearance. It also reflects changes in needlework and textiles.[3]

The objects that gave rise to the pocketbook are pockets and pocket cases. During the mid to late 1700s, clothing did not contain pockets so people had to improvise. Back then, pockets were separate articles that were not attached to clothing. They were deep pouches, usually made in pairs, and were tied around the waist with long tapes. Most were initialed and beautifully embroidered; however, their sole purpose was more for function than display. These were typically hidden and personal unless stolen. The pocket case was more like the pocket book. Instead of being tied around the waist it was handheld. Contents of a pocket case included letters, bank bills, valuable documents, and pins and needles. Like the pockets, they were beautifully embroidered, usually with silk. However, since these were visible to strangers they were a fashion accessory that expressed luxury. [4] Through the years these objects transitioned into the pocketbook.

The pocketbook is a small, rectangular purse; it was first seen in history in the late 1700s. This item was used by both men and women, but pocketbooks for men were slightly different than those carried by women. Male pocketbooks were larger and held different items such as money, receipts, and lottery tickets rather than the jewelry and the very important needlework essentials that one might find in a female pocketbook. There were two different versions of pocketbooks, single and double. The single had a flap closing whereas the double had two compartments and folded in the middle. The regular size of these bags was 4 by 8 inches. Most(both single and double) were bound by twill tape or long fabric ties in order to keep the pocketbook closed. There were also two forms of pocketbooks, either canvas or crewelwork, and these were very popular during the late eighteenth century.[5] Crewelwork refers to embroidery that is done in a variety of stitches using crewel or worsted yarns.[6] This type of needlework was also seen on bed furniture, petticoats, and even chair seats, as well as pocketbooks due to its strength. Canvas work, "eEmbroidery upon cloth over which canvas has been laid to guide the stitches, the threads of the canvas being then pulled out,"[7] was also very durable, which made them commonly used on the same objects that crewelwork was used for. This technique created very elaborate designs using a woven foundation, usually made of mesh or a stiff open weave canvas, on which the stitches were placed. Because the mesh contained many tiny holes, the stitches were as well, and this gave the illusion of continuity. Since its creation is time consuming and so many different stitches such as, tent, cross, flame, and Irish could be used, canvas work is considered a very intricate form of needlepoint.[8] The flame stitch is also called Bargello, and the design forms sharp points or zig zags. Flame stitches normally used intense shades, which were popular for pocketbooks during the eighteenth century[9] , such as the object pictured above. Though canvas work pocketbooks were widely used, they went out of fashion by the early nineteenth century when new styles and designs became more prominent. However, these items were prized enough to be recorded in wills.

Handbags, including the pocketbook, have two main functions: as a pouch to carry items and as a fashionable accessory. They are containers for what is essential and important to wearers and are connected to the history of their lives. During the eighteenth century, the contents of a bag included: money, cosmetics, keys, handkerchiefs, diaries, writing utensils, and notepads. However, the needlework essentials, fans, and letter cases have disappeared and in their places are mobile phones, wallets, and personal computers. One interesting characteristic of the handbag is that it is a form of privacy; no one can see what one carries within them. What they contain inside them is personal and concealed, yet at the same time they manage to display to the public, and this dual function gives them such potent appeal, especially to dress and culture historians.[10] The handbag, as we understand it today, is an accessory that can embody luxury, be a highly fashionable status symbol, and mirror the spirit of the times as accurately as any other article of dress. It has remained a female accessory for over hundreds of years, which reflects its high significance.[11] As an object of display, they express the individuality of a wearer. Different bags are used for different occasions. Some brands are more luxurious than others. And so, wearers may feel the need to be aware and up to date with the current trends. There are many types of bags including the hobo, messenger, clutch, tote, satchel, and pocketbook. As one of the many types of handbags, the pocketbook also performs its duties as a carrier for important items and as a fashion statement.

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Helen Nguyen, TMD 224H

Last updated:

January 30, 2014

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  1. ^ Adolph S. Cavallo, Needlework ( New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1979), 64.
  2. ^ Claire Wilcox and Sara Hodges, Bags (London: V & A Publications, 1999), 8.
  3. ^ Claire Wilcox and Sara Hodges, 8-11.
  4. ^ Claire Wilcox and Sara Hodges, 31-35.
  5. ^ Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt, Labors of Love: America's Textiles and Needlework (1650-1930. New York: Knopf, 1987), 114-117.
  6. ^ "Crewel," last modified April 8, 2013. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crewel?show=0&t=1365476542.
  7. ^ "Canvas-work," last modified April 8, 2013. http://www.wordnik.com/words/canvas-work.
  8. ^ Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt, 114-117.
  9. ^ Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt, 117.
  10. ^ Claire Wilcox and Sara Hodges, 31-35.
  11. ^ Claire Wilcox and Sara Hodges, 31-35.