The Contents of a Lady’s Handbag
The Year Was 1854
By: M. Callahan
In the early 19th century, women began to use small ornamental handbags in which personal items were carried. A purse was something quite different. A purse was simply a satchel in which only coins were carried since they were heavy and would soon wear holes in any pocket. Consequently, coins were often contained within their own case made of metal, leather or reinforced fabric.
Fashion of the 1850s for both men and women were colorful, sumptuous in style with luxurious fabrics. Sewing machines were increasingly available and the cage crinoline underpinned the dress silhouette.
Women’s dresses were made of lush fabrics often obtained from overseas markets. Silk and velvet were favorites along with beautiful polished cottons loomed largely in England for wear in warmer weather. Dress shapes consisted of fitted bodices to the waist and full bell skirts that were accessorized with ruffles, multiple trims, flowers, and layered flounces. Tight boned corsets narrowed the appearance of the waist but often reduced the natural breathing ability of the women laced within. Fainting,, especially in hot weather, was not unusual. Smelling salts were kept close at hand.
But, what was likely to be found in the handbag of an 1854 American Lady? The most important contents were a handkerchief and bottle of scent. The scent was dabbed onto the handkerchief and waved in front of your face while out on the street. The purpose of this exercise was to mask some of the odor created by the poor hygiene of those passing bye as well as the odor of horse droppings littering the streets. Although accepted as part of everyday life, it could be overwhelming.
A bottle of smelling salts was often carried, a key, eye glasses, and a clothes brush. Finally a coin purse for tipping as most purchased merchandise was placed “on account” with each shopkeeper.
Photo One: 1854 Hand Engraved Silver Handbag with Silver Mesh Handle
Photo Two: Interior of handbag: Lined in Satin with Fitted Loops to Secure the Contents and a bevel edge mirror.
Contents: Lace Handkerchief, Clothes Brush, Coin Purse, Key, Eye Glasses, Scent and Smelling Salts
Photographs courtesy of the author. Not available for reproduction or use elsewhere.
Photographs & images, on this page are from the author's photographic archive and are not available for use by other publications, blogs, individuals, websites, or social media sites. For this and other stories on Annandale and Annandale Real Estate see the ENDEAVOR News Magazine.
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