As seen on BBC TV's 'Great Antiques Hunt'
Winner, 1996

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This time we’ll take a break from discussing jewels we wear to consider those we carry:  the historic evening bags so many stylish women use day and night.  That almost everyone wants them makes this a timely topic.  Too, people now value and display them as art.  (Mine are on fancy hooks in the bedroom.)  Prices rose with their popularity, as I’ve watched with dismay through 20 years, so it’s crucial to be sure you get a real historic bag when that’s what you pay for.  There’s nothing wrong with creating replicas or new bags on old frames that would otherwise be wasted, but these should be represented truthfully if sold.  Any restoration should also be disclosed.  Dealing with trusted sellers is your best protection, but knowing handbag history can help you spot rare bargains.  

Medieval & Renaissance Handbags

Like many other adornments, handbags debuted as practical objects mainly for men.  Moving in more limited circles, ladies had less need to transport things, plus less access to the Coin of any Realm.  Surviving from 11th century Europe, the first “modern” purse seems to have been an almonier: a leather pouch from which the poor received coins.  A couple of inches square, drawn shut by thongs, they were worn suspended from belts along with other medieval must-haves: knives and swords.  Inherently linked to wealth, these evolved quickly into status symbols.   

Through the next centuries, more shapes and sizes appeared in a growing range of materials: fabrics, reeds, beads and metals.  Gilt bronze was often used for frames, chains and clasps, but there were also brass frames, some set with gems. As with fancy shoes developing then, women soon wanted bags, too – and even children got them (as witness the toy purse bar at left).

While purses for the well-off elongated to hold prized keys, combs, mirrors, medicines and writing, sewing and dining implements, those of the lowly grew into tool cases.  The larger bags required a pair of tabs to hold them onto men’s belts.

Ladies lacked wide belts, so wore bags differently - in the 14th century on cords trailing past the knees.  That must’ve been very awkward! 

Double-sided Tudor Toy Purse Bar
(Click through image for details.)

The solution, chatelaines, redistributed the weight of objects needed by the chatelaine (mistress of the house, literally keeper of keys).  These were topped by a pin or clasp that fastened at the waist, from which hung chains with swivel hooks.  Attached by day were a small purse, keys and items for chores - replaced in the evening by a mirror, fan, pomander and dance program. 

Specialized “dance chatelaines” evolved, as did specialized “seal bags” for official documents (adorned with seals, arms, portraits or maxims) and precious little purses worked in gold or silver thread, in which monetary gifts were presented – as tasteful bribes – to royals.

Chatelaines held ladies’ purses and other objects for centuries.  The version at left is from the 1700s, a museum piece.

Fancy needlework featured on purses from the 12th century.  Early techniques included tapestry (in which the stitches became the fabric) and ornamental cross-stitch, crewelwork, stumpwork and needlepoint, of which petit-point became a specialty in France, Austria and Hungary.   The finest held 900 tent stitches to a square inch, worked in superb wools to depict landscapes, flowers and scenes from mythology or courtship.   Extravagant frames and linings were de rigeur for these treasures, still usually owned by men. In the tradition of early needlepoint, but much younger, the choice Late Victorian or Edwardian bag shown below is one we placed in a private collection in Japan.  (Click through image for details.)

In another reversal from modern usage, women were first to get pockets!  Their purses were in the late 1500s replaced by pouches hidden under skirts made voluminous by hoops.  Fastened at the waist and accessed through slits in the skirt, most were plain and, if embroidered or patchworked, they were so simply designed that girls learning to sew made them as presents.  

17th & 18th Century Handbags

In the 1600s, ladies’ bags emerged from petticoats as Fashion Statements.  Men weren’t close to giving them up, though.  Matched “wedding purses” were popular, derived from the royal custom of decorating bags with nuptial portraits painted on porcelain.  Reflecting trade growth, tambour embroidery reached Europe from the in the late 17th century.  Eventually banned as “the forbidden stitch” for causing so much blindness, Chinese tambouring employed a very fine hook to produce an almost microscopic chain stitch.  French masters of the art used lighter, more open stitches.

The early 18th century advent of greatcoats and waistcoats with outside pockets reduced men’s use of purses.  Those exploded into elaborate saddlebags and game bags – while, to fit the pockets, canvas pocketbooks appeared for men and women. Shaped like envelopes folded in the middle and closed by long tapes, they were commonly gifts bearing the owner’s name, a date of presentation and embellishments to showcase the maker’s skill at stitchery (notably bargello or “flame stitch”).  Both sexes liked the “miser’s purse,” too.  Created circa 1780 and also known as ring, long or stocking purses, these tubular bags hung from belts by rings (mistakenly called “finger rings,” the idea being to free the hands).  The style was enjoyed into the 20th century, so you’ve seen Deco styles used when Flappers went dancing. The earliest were of fabric mesh with beads, fringe and tassels.  Other coin purse forms from this era were the Tam-o-Shanter, in 8-pointed star form resembling an Irish cap, and – worn on neck chains – the English shilling purse and French porte-monnaie. Soon reticules came along.  Ladies of the 1790s had to have bags, because pockets would spoil the drape of the slim, gauzy Greco-Roman Revival frocks favored in the French Empire/ English Regency period.  Most were simple, matched to dresses, but the extravaganzas survived.

Victorian & Edwardian Handbags

Reticules persisted after skirts widened, and most we see are 19th-early 20th century. They’re costly if lavish, but crocheted ones are cheap (usually ivory, saved by a bride).  “Sack”-shaped, closed by drawstrings through top rings, most were big enough for cash, keys, fan, perfume and oh-so-vital calling cards.  Normally worn on an arm, smaller styles could be pinned to the waist by a brooch.  

Beaded Victorian Bag on Early Plastic Frame
(Click through for details.)

Drawstrings, like bonnet strings, enraged proto-feminists. It seems silly now, but they rejected reticules and bonnets as strictly feminine forms, preferring hats secured by pins and more structured bags.  By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution gave them affordable hatpins and bag frames of metal and early plastic. 

Paradoxically, many purses sewn to those frames were carried in memoriam.  A rage for “mourning” goods began in the 1860s, when Prince Albert died (grieved by Victoria endlessly).

Mourning did end for most widows, so these bags survived in superb shape.  Unlike mourning jewels, which mostly strike me as gruesome, the black bags of the past perfectly complement our Little Black Dresses!

Generally, although not always, bags of this period have a chain or handle attached diagonally (to both sides) for security, since the earliest lacked clasps.  Also note the two older black bags have less structure; they’re round.  The others flare at the base from a narrow top and, besides being more “constructed,” have oval ornaments in line with the Edwardian revival of neo-Classical forms.  Other hallmarks of Edwardian style are “dressmaker” details (like corded seams) and the most elegant purse frames ever produced commercially.  

Victorian Bag on Jeweled Frame
(Click through for details.)

C. 1900 Bag on Art Nouveau Frame
(Click through for details.)

Edwardian Bag on Jeweled Frame
(Click through for details.)

Edwardian Petit-Point Bag.
(Click through for details.)

Edwardian Gros-Point Bag on Filigree Frame.
(Click through for details.)

Edwardian Beaded Bag on Filigree Frame.
(Click through for details.)

Certainly one of the most delightul and rare Edwardian bags I've seen is this.
It can be positively dated to 1910 by its Halley's Comet theme. (Click through for details.)

Muff-purses, which I adore for warmth, versatility and beauty in winter, were launched in the 1870s and stayed in demand long enough for the zipper, an 1851 invention, to be refined and popularized in the early 20th century. Made of shirred velvet, silk, fur, even feathers, some of these were dainty, but they ranged as large as two feet square (presumably to balance the immense hats of the Belle Epoque).

Fur & Velvet Muff-Purse.
Private US collection.
(Click through for details.)

Antique Velvet Muff-Purse.
Collection of Erin Harris.

As was cited in connection with shoe and hair jewels, the Arts & Crafts movement and ladies’ magazines inspired busy hands in Late Victorian and Edwardian homes – even more a bit later, when World War I slashed commercial goods’ availability.  Some the most delightful antique bags we’ll ever get a chance to own were made then by moms and the daughters they trained.  

Antique Sequinned Bag.
Private US Collection.

Whenever you see a bag that’s lovely, not labeled and obviously very old, its probable origin was the hearthside circa 1890-1920.  (Depression era handmades of the 1930s weren’t of equal quality and people in the Roaring 20s craved and could afford “store-bought” things.)

Once gals gained so much expertise on their own, the next step was inevitable:  Purse manufacturers in Art Deco days exceeded all that was ever done before!

Antique Brocade Bag
Private US Collection.

Art Deco Handbags

Whiting & Davis Metal Mesh Bag
Private US Collection

Metal Mesh Bag by Mayor’s
(Samuel Mayor Getz) in Case
(Click through for details.)

Despite the greater age and rarity of Victorian and Edwardian bags, the ones that prompted most of us to begin collecting are the exciting Art Deco styles that dazzle with shimmering metals, vivid enamels and glittering sequins and beads.

Metal Mesh Bags existed in the 19th century, but were priced far out of most women’s reach, since the mesh had to be formed by hand and usual materials were precious metals.  A mesh-making machine was invented in 1909, but not until war’s end did luxurious “gold” and “silver” bags reach the masses in the form of plated base metals (at times also enameled).  Top makers included Whiting & Davis, Mandalian and Mayor’s.

When buying metal mesh purses, keep in mind that many Deco styles were revived in the 1960s-70s (particularly by Whiting & Davis).  They can look identical to the originals, except for the lack of age-appropriate wear, so inspect them closely.

Beaded Bagsbecame more affordable at the same time, thanks to beads and techniques from Czechoslovakia, which emerged as a nation when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell.  (Goods from this region were previously called Bohemian and the terms are still used interchangeably.) Because Czech beads were bigger than their Venetian rivals, surfaces could be beaded more quickly - and by using a tambour hook on netting, rather than embroidering with needle and thread.

Stunning beadwork had long been done in France and and Belgium and they held onto the top end of the market.

Art Deco Czech Beaded Bag
(Click through for details.)

Art Deco Belgian Beaded Bag
(Click through for details)

Art Deco French “Sugar Crystal" Microbeaded Bag.
Collection of Erin Harris.

Judging the origin of bags bought in England is a guessing game, unless they’re marked “Made in England,” because “Empire Made” and “Foreign” often appear on labels.  Told the cutie below at left is “Empire Made,” we can rule in everywhere from Canada to Hong Kong – plus lots of spots in between – all of which can be ruled out for the golden glory with a “Hand Made Foreign” label.

Beaded Envelope Bag, probably c1940.
(Click through for details.)

The beauty below, also from the UK, wears no label, but looks French to moi.

Deco Diva Beaded Evening Bag - Ivory & Silver
1920s Microbeaded Bag, probably French.
Private US Collection.

Lavishly Beaded & Sequinned Bag of Mysterious Origin, 1920s
(Click through for details.)

Even “day” bags from the Deco years can be lovely for evening use.  Some are highly decorative already - and a brooch or two will quickly jazz up simpler styles like this midnight blue.

Deco “Clamshell” Fabric Bag.
(Click through image for details.)

Suede, leather & marcasite bag with everything but the sink inside.
1920s-30s. Collection of Erin Harris.

Retro & Vintage Handbags

Bags made since 1935 are of course our best current values as collectors, and the oldest of these will be antiques in five years, by the American 75-year standard.  (The English still adhere to 100 years.)  When you invest in these, go for quality and be picky about condition, since rarity value isn’t there yet, except in unusual instances like the lucites.  Also look for shapes and details that evoke a particular era; for instance, one of the earliest clutches (1930s-40s) would be a smart buy.  Above all, choose what you love and want to live with!




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