There was only one purpose for early modern Europeans to wear a purse: to carry coins. Men as well as women wore early purses which were often made of a soft material or leather. In the 17th century young women were taught embroidery in part as preparation for marriage. This allowed them to be able to create very beautiful handbags. By the 18th century the modern fashion was leaning more towards a very slender version of the purse inspired by ancient Rome and Greece. Ladies wanted purses which would not be untidy in appearance or bulky so reticules were designed in that fashion with fabrics like velvet and silk with straps for the wrist. This fashion was originally popular in France. When the new fashion came into Britain purses would be known as Indispensables.
Speaking of Indispensables, I have a young daughter whose own “indispensables” are princess dress up clothing. Yes, my little darling calls her princess dresses indispensable to her existence as a faery princess. But as she noted earlier this morning as we spent an hour looking for her magic wand, that princess accessory is the most indispensable except for perhaps her favorite tiara. She has several tiaras and crowns, but the one with the small white pearls, light pink sating roses and pink marabou is her favorite and absolutely indispensable. I still haven’t figured out what makes a tiara different from a crown. And yes, she even has a princess purse which is where we found the missing wand.
Men’s fashion did not adopt the trend. It found pockets built into trousers were more convenient and popular. During the industrial revolution in England, increased travel by the rail created the need for an evolved bag. From this need came the creation of the modern handbag, purse, pouch or clutch. Samuel Parkinson, an industrialist and entrepreneurial confectioner (creator of butterscotch) commissioned the first set of modern handbags for his wife in 1841. He placed the order for his wife’s new set of bags at the same time he ordered a fine set of traveling cases and trunks. These bags were requested because Parkinson noticed that his wife’s bag was much too small and made from a material which would not be able to make the long journey. His request was for various bags of different sizes for different occasions. He also requested they be made from the same fine leather material that his traveling cases were to be made of. These bags would be sure to stand out from the familiar carpetbag or other cloth bags other social classes used in that time period. The outcome of this would be recognized as the first set of modern luxury purses and handbags known to exist.
This set was created by H. J. Cave and would include a tote and a clutch. The bags would be marketed and sold by Caves for years, but critics claimed that such heavy bags would damage a ladies back and eventually in 1865 Caves would cease to offer them regularly. You can view this first set of bags in a museum in Amsterdam. The company focused on creating other products but did continue to create fine handbags for celebrities and royalty or to celebrate special occasions. This has continued though the years and as recently as 2012 the Diamond Jubilee was created for the Queen. In 2010 the company continued it’s tradition of creating fine handbags for women on a more regular basis.