The History of Handbags — a 5-Minute Guide

Today’s designer handbags have a long and storied history.

Early Europeans used handbags just as we do today—to store personal belongings needed for the day. Clothing had no pockets until the 17th century, so men also carried handbags for things like coins, alms, and relics.

Worn attached to a belt, this 16th-century buckle bag had 18 secret compartments. For the aristocratic gentleman, it was a status symbol.

1500s. French. Goat's leather belt puch with iron frame and 18 pockets, some behind secret closures. French. Silk. Tassenmuseum Netherlands
1500s. French. Goat’s leather belt puch with iron frame and 18 pockets—some behind secret closures. French. Silk. Tassenmuseum Netherlands

The First Man-Purse?

The sporran played a similar role in the highlands of Scotland—part utilitarian, part symbol of wealth and status.

A belted plaid with sporran as worn by a reenactor of Scottish history.
A belted plaid with sporran as worn by a reenactor of Scottish history.

A 16th-Century Messenger Bag?

As pockets became an integral part of clothing during the 17th century, men no longer needed to carry handbags for anything other than the bulkiest of items—books, documents, and letters.

Late 1500s. Leather book bag. Tassenmuseum Netherlands
Late 1500s. Leather book bag. Tassenmuseum Netherlands

Chatelaine Bags

From the 16th century, women often wore a decorative clasp at the waist with a series of chains attached, called a chatelaine. Suspended from it were useful household accessories such as scissors, keys, and sewing tools. Crafted from precious metals, chatelaines were considered as jewelry and status symbols.

Wedgwood Chatelaine, Indianapolis Museum of Art. Chatelaine, Tassenmuseum Netherlands. Chatelaine bag, LACMA.
Wedgwood Chatelaine, Indianapolis Museum of Art. Chatelaine, Tassenmuseum Netherlands. Chatelaine bag, LACMA.

Reticules or Indispensables

17th- and 18th-century ladies preferred to carry their particulars in small bags with drawstrings that were known as reticules in France and “indispensables” in England.

Lady from 1830 carry a French reticule handbag. LACMA
Lady from 1830 carry a French reticule handbag. LACMA
Left: A Colonial Coquette by Charles Henry Turner. Right: Frederik VI of Denmark and family out for a stroll by Johannes Senn, 1813
Left: A Colonial Coquette by Charles Henry Turner. Right: Frederik VI of Denmark and family out for a stroll by Johannes Senn, 1813. Both ladies are clutching a reticule.

Using embroidery skills learned from a young age, ladies created designs of great artistry and beauty.

c1680. French. Silk, metal. metmuseum
c1680. French. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1799. Reticule. French. Silk satin with weft-float and supplementary weft-float patterning, silk floss and chenille passementerie with silk fly fringe, and silk cord. LACMA
1799. Reticule. French. Silk satin with weft-float and supplementary weft-float patterning, silk floss and chenille passementerie with silk fly fringe, and silk cord. LACMA

The Dawn of the Designer Handbag

The Industrial Revolution brought steam railways and travel became increasingly popular.

In 1841, Yorkshire entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson, whose Butterscotch confectionary was appointed to the British royal household, wanted to treat his wife to a custom-made set of hand luggage.

He had noticed that her purse was too small and not made of a sturdy enough material for traveling. So he had leather handbags made for her in varying size for different occasions.

Waiting at the Station, Willesden Junction by James Tissot, 1874
Waiting at the Station, Willesden Junction by James Tissot, 1874

Besides durability, Parkinson wanted to distinguish his luggage from that of lower class passengers.

London-based luxury leather goods company H. J. Cave & Sons was more than happy to oblige. Its Osilite trunk became so famous that it won several prizes in the 19th century, including first prize in Paris in 1867.

But most importantly for Mrs. Parkinson, she got to own the world’s first designer handbag.

H. J. Cave’s designs are known to have inspired Louis Vuitton (1857) and a young Guccio Gucci (1910).

Gallery of handbags and purses through history

1700s

c 1720. European. Silk, metal. metmuseum
c 1720. European. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1740. American. Linen, silk. metmuseum
1740. American. Linen, silk. metmuseum

1800s

1800. American. Silk, paper. metmuseum
1800. American. Silk, paper. metmuseum
1800. Mexican. Glass, cottom, linen. metmuseum
1800. Mexican. Glass, cottom, linen. metmuseum
1820. French. Metal. metmuseum
1820. French. Metal. metmuseum
1820. French. Silver. metmuseum
1820. French. Silver. metmuseum
1825. French. Silver. metmuseum
1825. French. Silver. metmuseum
1830. French. metal. metmuseum
1830. French. metal. metmuseum
1850. European. Metal, cotton. metmuseum
1850. European. Metal, cotton. metmuseum
1860. Italian. Silk. metmuseum
1860. Italian. Silk. metmuseum
c 1880. Mexican. Glass, linen, silk. metmuseum
c 1880. Mexican. Glass, linen, silk. metmuseum
1885. American. Cotton, silk, metal. metmuseum
1885. American. Cotton, silk, metal. metmuseum
1890. American. Silk, metallic. metmuseum
1890. American. Silk, metallic. metmuseum
1890. French. Leather. metmuseum
1890. French. Leather. metmuseum
c 1890. French. metla. metmuseum
c 1890. French. metla. metmuseum

1900s

1900. American. Silk, metal, glass. metmuseum
1900. American. Silk, metal, glass. metmuseum
1910. Scottish. Wool, metal. metmuseum
1910. Scottish. Wool, metal. metmuseum
1913. American. Tiffany. Gold. metmuseum
1913. American. Tiffany. Gold. metmuseum
1914. European. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1914. European. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1915. French. Silk, metal, metallic. metmuseum
1915. French. Silk, metal, metallic. metmuseum
1920. Italian. Metal, glass. metmuseum
1920. Italian. Metal, glass. metmuseum
1920. Philippines. Piña, silk. metmuseum
1920. Philippines. Piña, silk. metmuseum
1925. American. Glass, silk. metmuseum
1925. American. Glass, silk. metmuseum
1925. French. Leather, metal, stone. metmuseum
1925. French. Leather, metal, stone. metmuseum
1930. American. Leather, metal. metmuseum
1930. American. Leather, metal. metmuseum
1930. American. Leather, plastic. metmuseum
1930. American. Leather, plastic. metmuseum
1933. American. Leather. metmuseum
1933. American. Leather. metmuseum
1950. French. Cartier. Leather, wool, wood. metmuseum
1950. French. Cartier. Leather, wool, wood. metmuseum
1950s. American. Phelps. Cotton, leather. metmuseum
1950s. American. Phelps. Cotton, leather. metmuseum
1958. Italian. Gucci. Leather, metal. metmuseum
1958. Italian. Gucci. Leather, metal. metmuseum
1965. Italian. Gucci. Leather, wood, metal. metmuseum
1965. Italian. Gucci. Leather, wood, metal. metmuseum
1965. Spanish. Loewe. Leather, metal. metmuseum
1965. Spanish. Loewe. Leather, metal. metmuseum

References
Museum of Bags
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wikipedia
LACMA

David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.