Small, handheld bags used to hold money and other necessities, pocketbooks, also called purses, reticules, or handbags, have been an important fashion accessory for women since the late 1700s. People had used small leather or fabric pouches for money and valuables long before that, but those purses had been carried either by men only or by both genders equally. However, from the 1790s through the 1820s, it became fashionable for women to wear simple dresses made of thin, lightweight material. Before this, women had worn full skirts made of yards of heavy materials in which it was easy to hide many pockets to hold such necessities as money, keys, or cosmetics. The lightweight, silky fabrics that became popular at the turn of the nineteenth century would not support deep pockets, so women began to carry small handbags to hold the things they needed. They filled these bags so full that they soon became the object of jokes and ridicule.
Between the early 1800s and the early 1900s, reticules developed from small, drawstring bags made of fabric, with handles to hang over the arm, into pocketbooks with metal frames and snap closures. The first pocketbooks had been made flat and shaped like envelopes. They were closed with ribbon ties and placed in the pocket. Later however, the names pocketbook and purse were both used for any women's handbag. Pocketbooks were made of fabric, leather, or metal mesh attached to a circular metal frame and closed with a metal snap. Pocketbooks made of beaded fabric became popular for eveningwear during the late 1800s.
By the 1910s and 1920s, women's clothing again became lighter, and pocketbooks became a standard accessory, carried by most women at all times. During later decades, they became bigger and sturdier and were usually made of leather, almost like a small suitcase.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Western Dress, Prehistoric to Present . Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Haertig, Evelyn. Most Beautiful Purses. Carmel, CA: Gallery Graphic Press, 1990.
Yarwood, Doreen. Fashion in the Western World: 1500–1900 . New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1992.