Victorian purses have a slow building history among women. While not a new invention, the need for purses increased, especially among the middle classes who could afford to go shopping but not be in the company of servicemen at all hours. The real reason for needing a purse was not motivated by shopping, but by social interaction. A lady would visit her friends in the afternoon, leaving calling cards upon her arrival. Carrying cards, pencil, and a handkerchief in a small purse was not only convenient, but showed off her handicraft talents as well. The handmade purse was a little thing of beauty, painstakingly made to perfection.
As the Victorian era moved closer to the Edwardian era, other types of bags emerged that were closer to what we think of as handbags today. During the day, leather frame bags with handles were small but practical. Some, called Chantelaines, were clipped to a belt for hands-free convenience. Upper-class ladies and evening attire called for Victorian beaded purses, silk drawstring reticules, or metal mesh bags.
For the working poor in both Victorian and Edwardian societies, a large woven basket was the most practical shopping bag. The cheap carpet bag was used by all classes when traveling for short durations, including our favorite nanny Mary Poppins.
Read on about the history of 19th-century Victorian purses and early 20th century Edwardian purses and learn where to find reproduction or inspired purses for your Victorian costumes.
** This article is sponsored by Victorian Trading Co., purveyor of Victorian fashion and home decor. Links within may be affiliate links, meaning at no cost to you, we may receive a commission for purchases made after clicking. **
Victorian Reticule Purse
The Victorian purse, although not new to the era, was one that was becoming more commonplace among women who were no longer confined to the home. Up to this point, most women’s fashions were void of any pockets in which to carry small belongings. The hanging pocket or reticule bag had been the one purse style that allowed middle and upper-class women to go shopping, traveling, visiting friends, and leaving calling cards with ease. It was carried in hand, shaped like the inside of a pocket. It held only a few critical items such as a handkerchief, fan, pencil, and cards. There was little difference between day and evening reticule bags — both were heavily decorated with beads, needlework, or were trimmed in lace and ribbon.
Victorian reticule bags (jokingly called indispensables in Britain) were decorated in patterns of roses, birds, buttercups, and daisies made of small beads or embroidered wool. Fancy ones were trimmed in ribbon, braiding, tassels, and fringe. Plain ones were made of silk and were more practical for daytime. They had either drawstring tops or were sewn flat and stiffed with card. Most reticules were handmade at home by ladies to show off their feminine skills.
The easiest handmade purse was the crochet or knit purse of silk yarn. They were round in shape, with a tassel at the bottom and a drawstring at the top. Most men and some ladies had a similar small purse made of kid leather that was used to hold tobacco.
Long tube shaped reticules with or without a tassel dangling from the bottom came by many names such as stoking purses, miser purses, ring purses, and finally just long purses. Its history extended back to the 17th and 18th century. Victorian designs favored the color green, silk crochet, netting, needlecrafts, and/or heavy beading. It was customary for men to carry the same type of purse complete with steel beads and tassel!
In the 1830s and 1840s, silk cross stitch on canvas formed most reticule flat bags. In the 1850s and 1860s, Berlin wool work replaced silk. Berlin wool was soft merino wool that was imported to Berlin, Germany to be dyed in bright colors. The wool was easy to stitch in mostly single rows, following chart designs frequently provided in ladies’ magazines and newspapers. The final results were colorful blooming florals with a textured tapestry feel. Square, rectangle, and pocket shaped purses were the most common and easiest to create by the home maker.
From the 1860s onward, decorated fabrics were only one of many material styles. Bags and coin purses were made of metal, raffia, leather, and ivory too. Those made of stiff outer material were lined in soft silk on the inside.
As skirts widened in the 1850s and 1860s, the use of a handheld reticule was replaced by hidden pockets in the dress. Although they could be fairly large, they were not supposed to be noticed. Carrying handkerchiefs, letters, a notebook, a calling card case, and money all in one pocket could lead to a bulging appearance. A respectable lady had to be aware of the number of things she carried when she left the house and only take what was small and absolutely necessary. Purses of this decade, when used, were very small, with short cord handles in the reticule or purse shape as seen below. For evenings, a fussy lace or ruffled reticule matched the stye of gown.
Victorian Chatelaine Bags
“For some time past, chantelaine bags have been very popular in England. They have been worn at the side suspended to the waistband. These have generally been made of leather and studded with steel, and for traveling have been found very convenient. For home wear, they are made of gimp or embroidered velvet.” Queen, 1863
Chatelaine bags were on trend from 1860 to 1900. Chatelaines bags hung from the waist and could be flat fabric or a leather frame bag with one or two chains, ribbon, or cord handles joined together in a clip that slid over a belt, sash, or chain around the waist. In the 1860s, the bag was usually flat and outlined in silk cord with tassels at the top corners. Closer to the 1870s, the card purse had three points, each with a tassel and a cord handle. 1880s chatelaine bags were made of velvet, satin, fur, or plush. They had only simple embroidery and trim, letting the rich fabric speak for itself. The 1890s saw a return to embellishing with ribbon, a flashback to the 1830s. By the late 19th century, leather bags in similar shapes were preferred over anything homemade.
They were very practical for the lady on the move as it allowed her to keep her hands free but necessities nearby. It also reduced the number of purse snatchings, which were becoming a problem in cities. In the country, women used a leather chatelaine purse while out riding horses. During WWI, nurses wore a similar variety to carry medical tools with them. Why do we not have something like this today? I would use it!
(Top) Made of gold satin, it measures 6.5 inches. Trimmed with gold lace and edged at the top with a pleating of silk plush, over a wide pleating of satin. Two ruffles in the centre of rich shades of green and crimson with matching embroidery.
(Bottom) Moss-green embroidery silk and gold thread are used for the stitching. The bag is edged with heavy green-silk cord, and a deep pointed fringe of red silk tassels and gold cord. The bag is drawn up by a red silk cord, and finished at the sides with small red and green silk tassels.
The reticule adapted into new forms after the turn of the century. The Dorothy bag was made of soft materials and a drawstring top, just like a Victorian reticule. It was often covered in beads and included a tassel bottom lined with silk, cotton, or velvet with a long cord or ribbon handle that hung at knee level. Some were embellished with steel beads instead of glass beads. Many had a beveled mirror inside the bag, a hidden tool for applying makeup.
Small purses with wrist straps improved on the design. There were bags for specialty uses, such as attending the opera. Opera bag held opera glasses, a program, mirror, and a fan. Dance bags were designed to carry delicate silk dance slippers to a ball where travel in boots was necessary first. Turn of the century specialty bags were often made of colorful dyed suede, a new material that was both pretty and durable, unlike silk.
In 1910, fashion took inspiration from the orient. Beaded and embroidered bags featured scenes, objects, and people in the oriental art style. Frames were carved from ivory or bone. Colors drifted to gold, red, and black combinations. The lantern shaped bag (middle below) mimicked Chinese Lanterns and were often embroidered with scenes in China. Other styles used boning, cardboard, and embroidery hoops to create support for 3D shaped purses.
How to Make a Reticule
Start with two 6 by 10 inch “pocket shape” pieces of fabric (lining is optional). Add embroidery, beading or trim now before sewing the pieces together. Starting 1 inch down from the top edges, sew the purse all around the sides and bottom. Hem/serge the top edge. Turn down the tops of each side to make a casing. Sew the top edge and again about 3/8 below that. Put the drawstrings through the casings and tie knots in the ends. Add a long tassel or fringe to the bottom of the reticule for evening styles.
Tip: Not inclined to sew? Drawstring reticules are available to purchase at low cost. One of my favorite lesser-known sources are Potli bags. They are used in Indian evening and wedding affairs. The designs favor traditional Indian art and design, which works perfectly for the British Victorian era when they ruled India from 1958 to 1947. Americans didn’t receive as many Indian goods as the British, but the simple designs work well for the era none-the-less.
Victorian Beaded Bags
Heavily beaded reticules, chatelaines, and framed Victorian purses were a work of art. Up to 1000 beads per square inch could decorate a purse before 1850. This type of fine beadwork created a bag that looks tapestry-like. Not to be confused with real “tapestry bags” that were made of woven yarns, mostly to hold women’s needlework supplies. As the century progressed, slightly bigger glass beads and more space was beaded into the bag design.
Gilt beads, steel beads, and some bugle beads were used on purses in the 1850s and 1960s. Tassels were made of the same beads on the bag body. To keep the beads securely attached, special “purse silk” or “netting silk” was used.
The early 20th century also saw Native American beaded bags become major fashion items. Unlike Victorian beaded bags, these bags were made of soft chamois and decorated with a few brightly colored beads. Cut fringe replaced long beaded fringe and silk cord acted as the handle.
Purse frames were quite ornate, being made of solid gold, sterling silver, nickel, amber, ivory, or celluloid. They were heavily engraved or embossed in filigree scroll with gemstones, pearls, and enamel art accents. The frames opened and snapped closed, providing some security to the contents inside. The early 20th century saw the use of the new kiss(ing) lock. They were used mostly on small coin purses instead of bags.
Tip: I love the beaded bag collection at Victorian Trading Co. Additionally, you can find them sold online made with cheaper sequins or plastic beads, but they are not as nice as glass beads. Occasionally, they come back in fashion long enough to be sold in the evening / wedding section of your favorite department stores.
Metal Mesh Bags
“Ladies of the middle classes… in hansom carriages as they paid afternoon calls. Their white kid gloves were of immaculate quality. Over one wrist they carried a small, square, gold mesh bag containing a gold pencil, a handkerchief, and a flat gold wallet which held their calling cards.” Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion.
Bags for different seasons were also a welcome design. The crochet mesh bag was an airy summer accessory that lasted well into the 1930s. Metal mesh bags were another popular style most notably made by Whiting and Davis starting in 1882. They were constructed of silver or base metal rings intricately joined together into a fine mesh. They looked a bit like chainmail armor from the Medieval days. The inside could be lined with a soft silk of the same gold or metal color, or lined in a contrasting cheerful silk or suede. The frames were richly studded with precious stones such as pearl, amethyst or turquoise. The snap frames, kiss locks and twist locks could be decorated as well.
Mesh bags were masculine and military feeling, yet pretty with a decorative frame, clasp, and “fringe” bottom. They increased in popularity in the 1920s, when color screen-printing allowed pictures of flowers and fruit to be printed on the metal. Naturally, they made an elegant choice of a purse for afternoon and eveningwear.
For a lady who did not a need to carry a purse, metal coin purses worn around the neck was a useful substitute for brief outings. These were also tied or clipped at the waist, Chantelaine style, in the early Victorian years.
Tip: Metal mesh purses never went out of style after the Victorian era. You can find vintage bags from the ’50s to the ’80s that look very similar to Victorian and Edwardian era mesh bags. I have a Whiting and Davis vintage bag that I often use with my Victorian evening gowns. Whiting and Davis still makes beautiful mesh bags. They cost a small fortune, but they are worth it!
The Carpet Bag
Fueled by greater mobility and the adventurous thrill of travel by train or ship, luggage became a necessity. The carpet bag experienced a surge in popularity in the 1850s to 1870s. It was large and roomy, but portable enough to be carried by a woman. They were made from scraps of rolled silk carpet (often used/pre-owned) with a wide bottom, and collapsed at the top with two short leather or wood handles. They were cheap to make and cheap to buy at only $1 to $2 at a Dry Goods store. Every class of person owned and used a carpet bag for light travel.
They became so synonymous with travel that any out of towner was easily recognized by the carpet bag they carried. Many American northerners moved south after the Civil War to take advantage of cheap farms. The name “carpetbagger” was not a kind one. It is defined as “an outsider involved in politics.” In the south, those politics involved cheating southerners out of their land, wages, and quality of life. More info.
The most famous Carpetbag belonged to the loveable nanny, Mary Poppins. She traveled into the Banks’ house with it and surprised the children with the magic inside. There were many stories of nannies and their carpet bags full of fun toys. Children came to expect that a visit from a family member accompanied by a colorful carpet bag meant a special toy or treat was inside.
Other handbags emerged from the carpet bag’s simple and durable design. Louis Vuitton made a travel bag of waterproof canvas and lacquered iron. Leather bags followed with locks, keys, and multiple compartments. A large bag with a metal frame called the Gladstone bag, after Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister William Gladstone, was used for women’s travel. They looked like vintage suitcases.
The club bag was another travel bag that was adapted for women. The club bag is most well known as a doctor bag. They were quite large but could come in smaller sizes for women. Bags snapped closed with a frame, had multiple compartments, and were otherwise more practical than pretty.
The first bags to be called ladies’ hand-bags appeared in the late Victorian era. Designs came from leather good trades rather than fashion houses. Vuitton, Gucci (est 1906), Prada (est 1913), and Hermes (est 1837) each started out as saddle, luggage, and harness manufacturers. Hermes gradually used “exquisite leathers” such as alligator, ostrich, and crocodile in handbag designs, elevating the bag into the fashion space. After the turn of the century, leather could be dyed in rich colors like red, green, or purple. Bags also shrank down further at this time.
Narrowing skirts in the Edwardian era meant there was no room for hidden pockets in skirts. This upset many feminist American women who pointed out that while men had an ample number of pockets in their suits and coats, women were required to give up one useful hand so she could carry a purse! This didn’t stop women from using handheld and chatelaine bags, but it did encourage women to turn to more practical and masculine designs. Small leather bags with a wrist strap complimented walking suits of the Edwardian lady.
In the 1890s, a favorite leather was green or maroon morocco leather. The use of crocodile, lizard, seal, goat, and faux reptile skins were also very popular during this era. Depending on their purpose, they were fitted with internal pockets for a mirror, scent bottle, cards, glasses, and hanky. Shopping bags were usually larger and void of these compartments, leaving more room for purchased goods.
City women had department stores to thank for the necessity of larger shopping bags. Not only did they sell them, but they gave women a reason to leave the house for most of the day. Department stores like Macy’s in New York and Selfridges in London were social gathering places — not just for shopping, but for dining, taking tea, and attending events.
Tip: The Victorian- Edwardian leather purse is the most difficult of the purse styles to obtain today. Most modern purses do not have the snap frame that gives the purse its antique look. I usually have better luck finding purses in thrift stores. Besides the frame, a bag with embroidery like this one is a lovely choice for a “romantic Victorian-inspired everyday look.”
A working-class woman was not able to go about her business without the use of a larger basket or bag. Servants of the wealthy also used large woven baskets to go to market, pack a picnic, or assist a lady with her shopping. The basket came in several forms. The market basket was an open top with one or two handles across the center. Early versions were almost always round, while later styles could be shaped like a picnic basket with flap tops. Some were deep, some were shallow. They were woven from willow, elm, or split basket weave. Almost all had large handles to balance over a forearm. The basket hung over the woman’s shoulders below is carried by a leather strap. She also wore a gathered apron of sorts, probably to hold her money.
Middle class women who went to the market or out shopping often decorated their straw baskets with ribbon, bows, pom-pons, embroidery, lace, and old brooches. They were often lined in a soft fabric like cashmere or velvet and pulled closed with a drawstring top. The decoration set them apart from the lower classes. I find the drawstring top inside the envelope shape bag to be an interesting blend between basket and reticule purse.
The Boston Shopping Bag below is described as “7 x 11 inches, has two handles, outside pocket, cloth top with drawstrings. ”