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Shopping with a basket at Fort Fred. (photo by Denise Wolff)

The subject of carrying things at living history events never seems fully resolved. There were the fireworks I like to call Basketgate, and in the four years since, more women have been carrying frails than firm-sided baskets. But here’s the thing: baskets were not used as purses. They were used for shopping, and for babies (thanks, Ruth!), not for toting about one’s personal effects. That’s what pockets were, and remain, for.

Pocket, silk on linen, ca. 1780. Martha Elizabeth Spach (probably). MESDA 2400.

18th century women were not cursed with the tiny pockets of today’s fashionable jeans. No, they had voluminous pockets capable of holding a vast array of items: pocket journals, purses (like our wallets), game tokens, an orange, keys, and almost anything else you can think of. The pocket shown in the image is 15″ long by 11″ wide, which is a fairly typical size, though some were even larger. When I made these, I described them as “large enough for a puppy,” and Facebook wouldn’t let me post them. There is now a full-length book on The Pocket and I look forward to reading it next year, when my ILL will finally request it ($50 being too dear for my budget). In the meantime, the Victoria and Albert Museum will get you started if pockets are new to you.

So, baskets for shopping and pockets for personal things. What else might you use to convey something from one place to another?

Paul Sandby RA, 1731–1809, British, London Cries: A Man with a Bundle, Old Clothes, undated, Watercolor on medium, cream, slightly textured laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

A wallet, of the kind reenactors call a “market wallet,” though that was not the period term. You can read about these in an article by Charles LeCount. The man in the watercolor has a very full wallet over his shoulder, demonstrating the larger end of the wallet spectrum.

And to carry your money in? A purse or pocketbook, sometimes in leather, sometimes in flame stitch, and sometimes in silk.

Which one you choose depends on who you portray, and where. Silk wallets or pocketbooks belong to a particular class and the ones in museum collections are often from France. Flamestitch wallets are reasonably common in North America among people with the time to make them. The really neat thing about these is that the patterns show regional differences, so you can tailor your choice to your place. (I lack the patience, skill, or time to really make headway on mine, but in addition to a wonderful custom pattern, I found kits here.) I have a leather one I love, made by this fellow craftsperson and friend.

Miser’s purse, early 1800s, maker unknown. Purchased 2002. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH009865)

Your coins? A purse. (we call these miser’s purses, though long purse or ring purse might also be used. The forms originates in the 17th century, and although it is most popular in the 19th century, it does appear in the 18th century. It’s just not common, so no, not everyone should have one. A simple bag will do for those with coins they wish to keep wrangled.

Servant Returning from the Market, 1739, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Louvre Museum,
MI 720

A bag, a pillow case, or even a tied cloth, as seen in the painting by Chardin.

There are lots of options for carrying chattel, lumber, and personal items, and most leave your hands free. But for women, the first place to start is tie-on pockets, and for men, the pockets in your coat. After all, the pocket bags in a typical Henry Cooke frock coat will hold a six pack between them. 

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