Spotlight: Victorian Era Purse and Handkerchief

Spotlight 2: 1883 (maybe?!) Purse and 1860s Handkerchief

Why don’t modern purses have cool hinges and closures like this?!

Welcome to 昔のSewing’s second spotlight! Since I recently finished up a Victorian Era restoration project, I thought it would be fun to share some ladies’ accoutrements from the same era that didn’t require any restoration work!

The same friend who gave me the nightgown also gave me these heirlooms – a velvet and leather purse with metal closure from 1883 (maybe – more about that in a moment), and a handkerchief (likely from earlier, more like 1860-1870ish).

The purse in question – so stylish!

Unlike today, when many women carry immense purses or bags full of everything they might need over the next week, historically most middle-to-upper class women carried very little in their purses, so they were often much smaller. (Travel, of course, was a whole different story – as were the larger bags or baskets carried by working class women.) My purse is a thick green velvet reinforced at the bottom with a leather that seemed to once possess either a plaid or checked pattern (barely visible in the photo above – it’s quite faded now!). The top is a gilded metal with a row of eight gems (probably glass, though I haven’t had them appraised yet) set into the front.

The lining is much more practical, a ribbed black fabric that feels like a silk blend.

Family records date the purse to 1883, which is not totally unreasonable given the style. It doesn’t look dissimilar to chatelaine purses of the era, and the velvet and leather also track. There are only two problems. One is the aforementioned hinged closure – the only extant examples I could find seem to be from the 1920s. The second is the ball chain handle – the ball chain was patented in 1918. However, when I look at handbags and purses from the 1920s, mine really looks nothing like them!

Given that the owner prior to my friend was the same person who possessed the nightgown, I do have a theory – that the body of the purse was indeed Victorian, but that the last owner had the closure and handle updated to fit 1920s styling. Without disassembling it to look for clues like unpicked stitches, remnants of old fastenings, etc, I can’t be sure, but I think it’s a decent theory! If anyone has any better ideas, or more information, please do let me know down in the comments! ❤

I cannot imagine blowing my nose with this…

I’m on much more solid ground with the handkerchief! The fabric and sewing techniques are extremely similar to those of my nightgown – it’s within the realm of possibility they were made by the same person. Handkerchiefs were ubiquitous in the Victorian era, and there was even a flirtatious language of hankies similar to that of flowers!

Seriously, this must have taken absolutely forever to sew.

If I go with my assumption that the body of my purse was indeed Victorian, then what might it originally have contained? Women, particularly upper-class women, did not often carry money (instead shopping on account at various stores), so the contents were liable to be few. Absolutely a handkerchief would have been there, and in the 1880s it’s likely that the owner would have also packed her favorite perfume, and a few calling cards. So here’s a re-creation of what this purse’s first owner might have seen at the end of the day:

Purse & handkerchief – antique, calling card – handmade (modern) – perfume – Tocca “Florence”

By contrast, here’s my modern purse and its contents:

Purse – Fossil, phone – OnePlus, iPod – ancient, wallet – Etsy (no longer available). Keys, pen, hand sanitizer, and assorted paper – various.

Just a few more items! 🙂 I have tried carrying an even smaller purse, but in fairness it didn’t quite work for me. I do like to have a bit more room, if only so I can fit extra things like tickets or snacks while traveling. Based on what I keep in there, my purse is more similar to what a lower-middle class woman of the Victorian era might have carried – not so big that I’m carrying my lunch or sewing in it, but big enough to carry some money and additional necessities that a wealthier woman wouldn’t have bothered with.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the items from today’s spotlight as much as I enjoyed researching them! I have many more interesting artifacts from the past tucked away in my home, so you can look forward to more spotlights in the future!

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2 thoughts on “Spotlight: Victorian Era Purse and Handkerchief

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