A history of pockets

Wearing pockets

From the 17th century to the late 19th century, most women had at least one pair of pockets, which served a similar purpose as a handbag does today. There are no pockets visible on this woman's ensemble of 1760. They were usually worn underneath their petticoats.

William Nutter, after William Redmore Bigg, 'The Penny Lost', England, 1803. Museum no. 28427.7

William Nutter, after William Redmore Bigg, 'The Penny Lost', England, 1803. Museum no. 28427.7

Sack-back gown, Britain, 1760. Museum no. T.77-1959

Sack-back gown, Britain, 1760. Museum no. T.77-1959

Men didn't wear separate pockets, as theirs were sewn into the linings of their coats, waistcoats and breeches.

Location of pockets in men's breeches, England, 1770-80

Location of pockets in men's breeches, England, 1770-80

Detail of pocket on a man’s waistcoat, Britain, about 1750s. Museum no. T.197-1975

Detail of pocket on a man’s waistcoat, Britain, about 1750s. Museum no. T.197-1975

Man's suit, Britain, 1740s. Museum no. T.250-1934

Man's suit, Britain, 1740s. Museum no. T.250-1934

Images of Lady Clapham, a doll dressed in the clothes of the 1690s, show her pocket in relation to her underwear and outer clothing. Underneath her petticoat (skirt) she wears two layers of undergarments - a shift then an under-petticoat. She ties her pocket round her waist, in between her under-petticoat and petticoat.

Lady Clapham in her under-petticoat, with pocket tied around her waist, England, 1690s. Museum no. T.846-1974

Lady Clapham in her under-petticoat, with pocket tied around her waist, England, 1690s. Museum no. T.846-1974

Lady Clapham in her shift, doll and clothes, England, 1690s. Museum no. T.846-1974

Lady Clapham in her shift, doll and clothes, England, 1690s. Museum no. T.846-1974

Lady Clapham doll, fully dressed, England, 1690s. Museum no. T.846-1974

Lady Clapham doll, fully dressed, England, 1690s. Museum no. T.846-1974

How did you get your hand into your pockets?

With all those layers on top, how did you get your hand into your pockets? Petticoats had openings in the side seams so a woman could put her hands through and reach her pocket. The pocket was invisible but accessible.

Diagram of a petticoat showing access to pockets, 1760s. Museum no. T.115:A-1953

Diagram of a petticoat showing access to pockets, 1760s. Museum no. T.115:A-1953

Diagram of a gown showing access to pockets, 1760s. Museum no. T.115-1953

Diagram of a gown showing access to pockets, 1760s. Museum no. T.115-1953

What did people keep in their pockets?

There were no mobile phones, car keys or credit cards in the 18th century. Nevertheless, women kept a wide variety of objects in their pockets. In the days when people often shared bedrooms and household furniture, a pocket was sometimes the only private, safe place for small personal possessions.

Sovereign Coin of the Commonwealth, England, about 1653. Museum no. M.946-1882

Sovereign Coin of the Commonwealth, England, about 1653. Museum no. M.946-1882


Pincushion, England, about 1900. Museum no. Circ.361-1966

Pincushion, England, about 1900. Museum no. Circ.361-1966


Watch and case, England, about 1700. Museum no. 1362-1904

Watch and case, England, about 1700. Museum no. 1362-1904


Snuff boxes, England, about 1765-75. Museum nos. C.470-1914 and C.478-1914

Snuff boxes, England, about 1765-75. Museum nos. C.470-1914 and C.478-1914


Nutmeg grater, England, 1800-25. Museum no. M.1065-1927

Nutmeg grater, England, 1800-25. Museum no. M.1065-1927

Money
The heroine of Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela, published in 1742, had to flee her master by escaping out of a window.

'I took with me but one shift, besides what I had on, and two handkerchiefs, and two caps, which my pocket held (for it was not for me to encumber myself) and all my stock of money, which was but five or six shillings.'

Jewellery
On 4 December 1717, William Carlisle came before the Old Bailey Courthouse on a charge of theft:

'William Carlisle, of St. Ann's, Westminster, was indicted for privately stealing a Pocket, value 1 pence, 2 Gold Rings, value 19 shillings,... a Laced Handkerchief, value 10 shillings and 2 shillings 6 pence. in Money, from the Person of Susan Wright, the 23d of September last.

'The Prosecutor deposed, That her Pocket was with great Violence pulled off by a Boy, which tearing down her Petticoat in doing it, she was obliged to take it up, and so could not follow him, and so be got off: She verily believed the Prisoner to be the Person, but was not positive enough to influence the Jury to find him guilty, so they acquitted him.'

A pocket was a handy place to keep everyday implements, such as a pincushion, thimble, pencil case, knife and scissors.

Eighteen Maxims of Neatness and Order, written by Theresa Tidy in 1819, lists the essentials for a pocket:

'It is also expedient to carry about you a purse, a thimble, a pincushion, a pencil, a knife and a pair of scissors, which will not only be an inexpressible source of comfort and independence, by removing the necessity of borrowing, but will secure the privilege of not lending these indispensable articles.

Other useful things found in pockets were keys, spectacles, a watch and pocket books (diaries).

The Public Advertiser, 22 January 1772:

'STOLEN out of a lady's pocket last night at Covent Garden Playhouse, an old-fashioned silver watch, maker Peter Le Conte, no.9, with an old brown chain, a small pinchbeck seal (impression: a woman' s head), steel key and hook. If offered to be pawned or sold, stop them and the party and give notice to Sir J. Fielding and you shall receive a guinea reward from the owner.'

Objects of vanity
Many pockets held objects essential to personal grooming, such as a mirror, scent bottle, snuffbox and comb. In the Female Spectator of 1745, the editor Eliza Haywood advises on the use of snuff and scent:

'The snuffbox and smelling-bottle are pretty trinkets in a lady's pocket, and are frequently necessary to supply a pause in conversation, and on some other occasions. But whatever virtues they are possessed of, they are all lost by a too constant and familiar use. And nothing can be more pernicious to the Brain, or render one more ridiculous in Company, than to have either of them perpetually in one's hand.'

One of Jack the Ripper's victims, Annie Chapman, was found wearing a pocket that had contained a small-tooth comb and a pocket comb in a paper case (Philip Sugden, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, 1994).

Food
A pocket was a useful place to carry food. James Henry Leigh Hunt wrote a collection of essays in 1812 which included a description of an 'old lady' and the contents of her pockets:

'In one is her handkerchief, and any heavier matter that is not likely to come out with it, such as the change of sixpence. In the other is a miscellaneous assortment, consisting of a pocket-book, a bunch of keys, a needle-case, a spectacle-case, crumbs of biscuit, a nutmeg and grater, a smelling-bottle, and, according to the season, an orange or apple, which after many days she draws out, warm and glossy, to give to some little child that has well behaved itself.'

Bonbon box
Grandmama's Pockets, written in 1849, is a story about the contents of a little girl's grandmother's pockets,

'Annie had often longed to peep into them, but was afraid. She knew their contents were numerous, and very tempting. Amongst them was a large silver bon-bon box, with a puzzle top to it - and a cup and ball, which she was permitted to play with when she was very good.'

Cakes
In Charles Dickens' novel The Personal History of David Copperfield, 1850, the young hero is sent away from home by his cruel stepfather. His nurse, Peggotty, bids him farewell:

'Releasing one of her arms, she put it down in her pocket to the elbow, and brought out some paper bags of cakes which she crammed into my pockets, and a purse which she put in my hand, but not one word did she say.'

Even a bottle of gin!
In Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, 1891, the heroine becomes so destitute that she can only find work on a turnip farm. Her companion, Marian, carries a bottle of gin in her pocket:

'Marian's will had a method of assisting itself by taking from her pocket as the afternoon wore on a pint bottle corked with white rag, from which she invited Tess to drink. Tess's unassisted power of dreaming, however, being enough for her sublimation at present, she declined except the merest sip, and then Marian took a pull herself from the spirits. 'I've got used to it,' she said, 'and can't leave it off now. 'Tis my only comfort.'
Haberdasher's tradecard, England, 18th century. Museum no. 12853.12

Haberdasher's tradecard, England, 18th century. Museum no. 12853.12

Buying and losing pockets

Many pockets were handmade and they were often given as gifts. Some were made to match a petticoat or waistcoat. Some were made over from old clothes or textiles. Pockets could also be bought 'ready made'. On the tradecard shown, the haberdasher (seller of dress accessories) advertises both pockets and fabrics to make pockets.

However, many pockets were stolen - in the 18th and 19th centuries, thieves known as 'pickpockets' removed men's wallets and cut the strings of women's pockets.

The records of Old Bailey Courthouse document the prosecutions of many pickpockets, for example:

'On 5 November 1716:
Robert Draw of London, labourer, was indicted for privately stealing from Martha Peacock a linen Pocket (value 2 shillings), 1 holland handkerchief (value 1 shilling), a pair of white gloves (value 1 shilling), a pair of scissors and 3 keys, on the 1st of December last, The prosecutor depos'd, that as she was going along the street, the prisoner came behind her, thrust his hand up her riding-hood, and pulled her pocket off; that upon her crying out, he was followed and knocked down, and the pocket found upon him. The prisoner deny'd the fact, but the jury found him guilty to the value of 10 pence.'
OBP 5 November 1716 Robert Draw (t17161105-31)

The Old Bailey records tell us that thieves used a variety of methods to snatch pockets such as cutting the pocket strings and grabbing the pocket or slashing the pocket itself so the contents fell out. Securing your pockets while you were asleep was difficult. Many people put their pockets under their pillows, but even here they could be stolen. On 26 June 1773, Ann Grey testified at Old Bailey against Mary Stewart:

'I put 7 shillings 2 pence in halfpence and 3 shillings in silver, and put the pockets under the bolster with this money in them at night when I went to bed. The prisoner got up and took away my pockets. Atwood stopped her, at whose house I lodged, between seven and eight in the morning. When she came up stairs I claimed the pockets; the prisoner said they were her's. I said they were mine; there were 10s. 2d. in the pockets.'
OBP, 26 June 1773, Mary, the wife of Charles Stewart (t17730626-45)

Sometimes the pockets were stolen when empty along with other items of dress. All clothing was liable to theft as it was expensive and could be easily pawned. Advertisements for stolen goods often appeared in newspapers.

The Public Advertiser, 17 January 1772:

'STOLEN from a gentleman's house at Fulham: four small tablecloths and one large one marked P.D., seven shifts, two of them fine ones, the other coarser, six pairs of stockings, three worsted, one cotton and one thread; a large silver spoon (the crest a bugle-horn); a tea-spoon with the same crest, a cotton gown, two pair of pockets, three coloured aprons, several gloves, handkerchiefs, aprons, dresser-cloths, stockings, etc. two pairs of sheets marked P.D.

'If offered to be pawned or sold, stop them and the party and give notice to Sir John Fielding and you shall receive five guineas reward on conviction of the offenders.'
This image shows the safest place for a pocket and the unsafest place.

This image shows the safest place for a pocket and the unsafest place.

A pocketful of crime
The trial of James Dalton, a notorious thief, reveals the safest way to wear pockets. In the proceedings of the trial the accused confessed:

'He says, what gave them the greatest advantage, was the custom the women have of wearing their pockets under their hoop petticoats, where they might whip hold of it without the least interruption; whereas, says he, if to the contrary they would put their pockets between their hoops and their upper petticoats, they might defy all the Buzzes (thieves) in London to haul the cly (snatch pockets).'

Pockets go out of fashion

In the 1790s women's fashions changed very dramatically. Wide hoops and full petticoats went out of style. Instead, dresses had a high waistline and skirts that fell close to the body and legs. This meant that traditional pockets and their contents would ruin the line of the dress. As a solution, women began to use reticules, decorative bags designed be carried over the arm in the manner of our contemporary handbag. However, reticules are very small with barely enough room for a hankie and a coin, never mind the mirror, watch, keys, needlecase and oranges that a pocket usually contained.

Gown, France, 1790s. Museum no. T.673-1913

Gown, France, 1790s. Museum no. T.673-1913

Reticule, England, 1800-24. Museum no. Circ.554-1954

Reticule, England, 1800-24. Museum no. Circ.554-1954

Contemporary literature on proper behaviour suggests that women continued to wear their pockets:

Theresa Tidy, Eighteen Maxims of Neatness and Order, 1819:

'Never sally forth from your own room in the morning without that old-fashioned article of dress - a pocket. Discard forever that modern invention called a ridicule (properly reticule).'

Finding another place for a pocket
The Workwoman's Guide of 1838 is an early sewing manual full of patterns and instructions for a great number of practical items of dress for men, women and children, and contains five illustrations for pockets. Three main types are described in the text, including those that tie around the waist and those that fastened into the skirt. Clearly the mid-19th century was a period of transition, with both separate pockets and those sewn into the seams of a dress, in use.

In the 1840s, dress patterns show pockets sewn into the seams.

Five illustrations for pockets in The Workwoman's Guide, 1838

Five illustrations for pockets in The Workwoman's Guide, 1838

'Patterns of dresses from the 1850s to the 1890s show that although pockets were now attached to the skirt, they still followed the traditional shape of separate pockets.'

'Patterns of dresses from the 1850s to the 1890s show that although pockets were now attached to the skirt, they still followed the traditional shape of separate pockets.'

Pockets remained an essential item of dress for girls, older women and working-class women during the 19th century. In contrast to the delicate, embroidered pockets of the 18th century, those of the 19th century are larger and quite plain.

The Times newspaper carried the details of a trial held in March 1858. Two women were convicted of picking pockets on the omnibus. Their victim was a Yorkshire woman and the exact nature of her pockets was important to the outcome of the trial:

'On the pocket being produced, an old-fashioned double one, to show how it had been cut, Mr Ribton (a cross-examining lawyer) said, "Why this is the sort of pocket our great grandmothers used to wear".'

Separate pockets also remained part of folk costume and these were often embroidered.

 

Spot the pocket

Can you find the pockets in these pictures? Click the 'solution' image to reveal where each pocket is.

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