A “Pocket” History of Women’s Lives (1660-1900)

Pencils, a sketchbook, cake, thimbles, keys, money, snuff – women and girls carried a startling array of things in their capacious tie-on pockets throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Using these once-commonplace accessories as a lens to explore the complexities of lived female experiences, The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives 1660–1900, weaves together personal stories of love and loss, work and rest, triumph and failure that have previously been overlooked.

Let authors Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux guide you through the sometimes secretive, sometimes sad, always surprising world of pockets on the Yale Books blog.

In a London household in 1765 servant Frances Burk gave herself away. Her pocket ‘appeared pretty bulky’, according to her mistress Ann Clough who asked to examine it, revealing that Frances had helped herself to a silk handkerchief, a pair of stays, a linen apron, three quarters of a yard of flowered cotton and a linen bib, all stuffed in the pocket and all belonging to Ann.

Frances was not alone in using ample deep pockets for illicit acts. As women sought to eke for themselves precarious livings in precarious times, such events took place in urban and rural settings alike.

“In 1777 Jane Griffith took her chance and stuffed two live ducks that belonged to Thomas Wainwright in her pockets”

The obvious benefits of these detachable pockets to all women and girls – portability, invisibility when worn under garments, capaciousness and the ease with which they could be removed, stowed or hidden – made them particularly good companions for women who stole goods or concealed evidence – of all kinds. In 1777 Jane Griffith took her chance and stuffed two live ducks that belonged to Thomas Wainwright in her pockets as she went across the fields.

Tear-shaped embroidered pocket

Tear-shaped embroidered pocket with loop, mid-18th century. Museum of London, 46.8.3. © Pockets of History project

Pockets and the material world

But aside from women using their pockets to aid crime, court records show us everyday usage and indictments form a kind of inventory of the pocket contents. Once glimpsed though this lens, they point to how women could own and think about material things and use them to inhabit and negotiate the social world. Keys, ‘huswifs’, pawn brokers’ tickets, pocket books, small tools, and even biscuits point, in the court testimonies, to the utilitarian role that these pockets played in their owners’ lives and agency.

Plenty of the pockets surviving in museum collections today provide a clear expression of the value their owners placed on their small possessions: stowing and protecting them with special little compartments stitched inside the pockets themselves. Court testimonies also disclose women’s careful habits of putting things in small boxes, or even using their snuff boxes and nutmeg graters to squirrel away coins and jewellery deep inside their pockets. These were deliberate practices that underline a strong sense of ownership facilitated by their pockets and the various ways in which women could reckon the significance and promise of their portable goods.

Like a sanctum sanctorum a pocket could also carry lucky coins and amulets, or items of great sentiment, such as a silver dollar given to Esther Maclode by her husband before their marriage and carried in her pocket for ‘above forty years’, as she explained in 1781. Women even kept certain bones thought to protect against aches and pains in their pockets, close to their sides.

Pockets and privacy

Other historical sources such as letters, diaries and novels enhance this picture of women’s pockets in use and reveal them as guardians of women’s privacy, even selfhood and interiority. Sarah Hurst conducted a secret courtship during the 1750s and carried a miniature portrait of Captain Henry Smith, her beloved, in her pocket. In her diary she records how it was a comfort when she often gazed on it during his long absences on active service. When she lost her pocket with the diary and miniature in it, she was ‘in dreadfull anxiety’, fearing the loss of the unique picture and that her diary, with her ‘whole heart laid open’, might be read by strangers. Her father went in search of the pocket and found it on the road to Sarah’s immense relief.

Pattern for pockets, ‘A Lady’, The Workwoman’s Guide (1840), plate 10. Private collection. © Pockets of History project

Expressing women’s lived experiences

Women’s pockets were expressive in other ways too, not least in the cloth they chose and the skilled or unskilled needlework they used to make them, and in the thrifty ways they mended and cared for them to extend their useful life. Such is the material evidence gained from surviving examples that we can plot women’s individual consumer choices during the huge changes in textile manufacturing that characterise the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In printed cotton, wools and linens, plain and embroidered, shabby or chic, these pockets give tangible form to women’s labour and lived experience.

Our book uses the pocket, whether as extant object or revealed through visual art, inventories, journals and many other sources, over its two hundred and fifty year lifetime of common usage, as a lens to examine the multi-faceted lives of women in the past.

Barbara Burman is an independent scholar, and Ariane Fennetaux is associate professor of 18th-century history at the Université Paris Diderot. Learn more about their latest book, The Pocket: Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660–1900, by clicking here.

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