18th Century Purses, Reticules, and Work Bags

Last updated: July 9, 2024

See also pocketbooks, pockets, and housewifes. As I find similar forms, I’ve been grouping them together; there are sections for escutcheon-shaped panel purses, gaming purses, work bags, stocking purses and long purses.

(Of course, some of these groupings are fairly fluid; many of the unclassified drawstring bags, like Met 13.49.14 or Met 1980.445.11, could certainly have been knotting bags, for example.)

Some 18th century makers of bags and purses from Nuremburg, in the Landauer and Mendel Housebooks: Andreas Selzam (1713), Wolffgang Flintsch (1721), Johann Ziegmann (1722), and Jobst Sigmund Kraubiß (1756). Each man poses with samples of his work, some of which more resemble 15th & 16th century examples than what we see in the examples below.

  • V&A 557-1893, France, c. 1650-1700; “Tapestry woven purse of silk and metal thread in a Cupid and heart design with a green silk ribbon trimming formed in loops, with tassels. A quotation AQUILAURA, formed in a mirror image, reads 'c'est a qui l'aura' (it is a question of who gets it first)”
  • NT 1349854, 1675-1700; “Made from red silk velvet and decorated with a band of silver lace. It is lined with white kid and edged with red silk ribbon with an elaborate silver thread tassel at the base.”
  • V&A T.198-1927, England, c. 1700; “needle lace in silk and metal thread”
  • PMA 1930-30-30, France, early 18th century; “Silk with silk and metallic thread embroidery”
  • PMA 1930-30-33, Italy; “Yellow brocaded silk with raised metallic embroidery and sequins; gilt cord; back of white silk satin”
  • PMA 1930-30-29, Italy; “Ivory silk embroidered with muticolored silk threads and metallic threads and sequins; blue silk and metallic gimp around edges”
  • PMA 1930-30-28, Italy; “Salmon colored silk over linen with metallic embroidery; silk ribbon ruching, linen foundation”
  • V&A T.46-1950, 1700-1730, Italy; “Pochette of white satin embroidered with pink, red, yellow, brown, green, blue etc. in silks, silver-gilt wire, gilt strip and braid in satin stitch, couching and speckling with french knots. Lined with green watered silk. Two tasselled strings of silver-gilt thread attached to the flap and looped fringe of silver-gilt thread. Front: formal design of flowers on scrolling stems. Back: Shield of arms, bearing a horizontal bar and three crescents on a field sewn with stars surrounded by a floral border.”
  • PMA 1921-39-13, France, c. 1725-1750; “Cover of solid embroidery, mostly of couched metallic threads (very fine gilded and silver metallic foil-wrapped silk threads, several weights), and satin-stitched silk flosses in greens, red, oranges, black, blue and beige; lined in blue and pink plain weave 'shot' silk; braided silk and metallic cord, with braided tassel”
  • Manchester 1953.318; “Pink silk figured in cream. Rounded ends, lined green silk and edged with silver lace. Double drawstring through holes at top with four chenille and silver thread tassels.”
  • Met C.I.38.23.110
  • NT 1349586, c. 1750-1760; “Guinea purse or Thimble purse - Embroidered begonia silk and silver thread guinea purse lined with begonia silk. It is trimmed with three concentric discs on each side of a shell shape - silver, yellow, begonia made of coiled silver thread and held together with coloured silk with a pearl in the centre. There is a begonia and silver plaited cord and two tassels of interwoven silk and metal threads.”
  • V&A T.428-1966, England or France, c. 1760; “Netted bag made of bast or another plant fibre in pink and white, with five pom-pom type tassels”
  • Met 13.49.14, a silk bag embroidered with silk and straw, Britain
  • “a red heart-shaped purse with gold filigree decoration” on Mary Macdonald, Mrs John Chichester by Sir George Chalmers, 1780
  • Met 2009.300.2193, silk [sprang?], Britain, c. 1785
  • PMA 1920-7-56, a woman’s purse embroidered yellow satin, Netherlands, 1790
  • Maria Niforos EI-28, silk purse with arasene (chenille) embroidery, c. 1790s; “The purse has a delightful shape, and the flowers are embroidered on a cream silk.”
  • PMA 1930-30-34, a key purse with silk tent-stitch embroidery on linen canvas, England, 18th century
  • V&A T.257-1922, Britain; “Knitted silk purse, with gilt opening bars and finger-ring”
  • NT 1349588, “Drawstring purse with a top edge of red satin, a central panel of green silk velvet embroidered with a floral design in metal threads and red glass beads and bordered with solid metal embroidery with green and red beads. It is lined with green silk satin. There are drawstrings of dark blue and cream plaited silk with four small and two larger circular droppers of silk and metal thread.”
  • Met 1981.352.2, Britain, silk, c. 1795 (This one looks like an upcycled waistcoat to me.)
  • Met C.I.59.30.2, a purse with silk and metal-thread embroidery, France, late 18th century
  • Met 2009.300.2081, late 18th century
  • Met C.I.59.30.7, France, late 18th century
  • Case Antiques Spring 2010, lot 508, late 18th or early 19th century; “Ladies linen embroidered drawstring reticule, with green banding at top embroidered with various animal designs including birds, deer, snake and crab.”
  • Met 1980.445.11, a silk bag embroidered with a bucolic landscape on lower panel, France, c. 1795-1800
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1978-400, a silk embroidered reticule, c. 1795-1805

Escutcheon-shaped panel purses

Many of these could have been for knotting.

  • Met 2009.300.2078, probably French, fourth quarter of the 17th century
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1991-512, c. 1680-1740; “Shield-shaped purse worked with polychrome silk French knots and satin stitches, bordered with couched silver gilt on silk velvet. On one side is a scene of a man wearing jacket and trousers, carrying a parasol, standing within a landscape. On the other side a female in vaguely "oriental" dress stands within a landscape. Both scenes are bordered with scrolling silver gilt needlework on red velvet ground. Purse in four pieces, opening to reveal red velvet gussets at sides, embroidered with silver gilt in the folds. Steel frame and clasp.”
  • Met 1994.169, France, late 17th-early 18th century
  • V&A T.89-1935, France; “Embroidered frame purse with two flat shield-shaped sides. One side has a figure in classical dress seated on a couch with a globe and dividers, the other has a figure holding a parrot. The purse has a metal mount.”
  • Met C.I.59.30.4, leather with silk embroidery, France
  • Met 2009.300.2076, Austria (?), first quarter of the 18th century
  • Manchester 1971.117, c. 1700-1730; “Coloured glass beads netted onto silk mesh. In four sections, tapering to base. Design of crown, heart and cupids with motto 'I AIME MON ESCLAVAGE' alternating with crowned monogram.
  • Manchester 1971.118, c. 1700-1730; “Coloured glass beads netted on to silk mesh. Lining of yellow silk. One section with pattern in four panels tapering to base. Design of crown and shield alternating with crown and cornucopiae, each with leaf and flower sprays. Braided drawstring (incomplete) with two bead covered, wooden tassels.”
  • V&A T.44-1970, France, c. 1725-1750; “Spade-shaped purse on linen embroidered with metal purl, silver and gold thread and coloured silk in laid and couched work and French knots. The ground fabric is entirely covered by the embroidery. The edges are decorated with a thick braid of gold strip, purl and chain. One one side of the purse is a lady, in the character of Diana the Huntress, with behind her a stag. On the other side is a gentleman hodling a gun with a wild boar at his feet. The two sides of the purse are attached to a pinchbeck mount which has a snap-fastening device (might be of a later date); at the sides are gussets of red ribbed silk. The purse is lined with cream tafetta.”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1985-224, France or Germany, c. 1730-1745; “Small purse, shaped like a shield or a rounded "V", open at top with metal clasp. Purse is embroidered with silk and metallic threads on a silk ground. One side has woman picking fruit, with birds above and small house in landscape, worked in French knots within a shaped border of couched metal thread and plate on satin ground. Other side has deer and birds worked in knots, framed by bands of couched metal thread and enclosed silk embroidered flowers. Blue silk lining and edges.”
  • Met C.I.59.30.8, France
  • MFA 43.2477, England; “Netted drawstring bag striped in green, cream and brown, lattices, serpentines and sprigs in colored silk bibila work.”
  • LACMA M.85.207, France, c. 1770; “Brocaded silk, metallic thread, silk taffeta”
  • PMA 1907-214, America; “Silk embroidery and lining, spangles, silver mounting”
  • V&A T.321-1965, France; “Beaded purse made in four sections, each bearing an allegorical figure, one representing Justice, with pink silk cords and tassels”
  • MFA 43.2472, drawstring bag in Biblia work in a black and yellow checkerboard design
  • MFA 43.2474, “Polychrome silk bibila work drawstring bag, imbrications in open arrangement, white satin lining”
  • MFA 38.1226, England, late 18th or early 19th century; “Silk with gold and silver couching (Bibilia work), metal bobbin lace, silk ribbon, metallic tassels, silk and linen linings”
  • DAR 84.34.2, a drawstring bag or reticule made of off-white cotton lawn with inked writing and ornamentation, made by Hannah Gilman of Exeter, New Hampshire, c. 1790-1820

Game bags (for hunting)

Gaming purses (for gambling, as with card games)

Vanda Foster (in Bags and Purses) provides this succinct history of gaming-purses:

Gaming was as much a feature of life in the eighteenth century as in the seventeenth, and games like Loo, Whist and Quadrille were played by everyone from the Prince of Wales to the quiet country parson. Circular gaming purses, like those of the seventeenth centruy, appear on decorated card tables of the time of Queen Anne, and in 1751 Diderot’s list of the apprentice pieces made by a French pursemaker included a velvet-covered leather ‘counter purse’ in the same style. By the 1780s, however, Rowlandson’s prints show gamesters, both fashionable and unfashionable, with the ubiquitous wallet purse. The style of most eighteenth-century purses was governed by current fashion in decoration and needlework techniques, rather than by function.

Stocking purses

  • Met 1976.149.5, Britain, early 18th century
  • Cooper Hewitt 1931-40-54, silk and metal-wrapped silk in stranded knitting, possibly Spanish or Italian, 18th century
  • Cooper Hewitt 1953-106-80 and 1953-106-81, silk with cut-steel beads, French, 18th century
  • Mealy’s March 25 2015, Lot 684, “ a very rare 18th century Georgian gentleman’s silk net purse”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1971-1421, c. 1700-1750; “Stocking purse in green-blue silk worked in sprang technique (oblique-frame twining). The bottom is squared in shape and embroidered with couched and padded silver metallic threads in leaf scrolls with peach-pink and green silk flowers (same design on both sides). Upper portion has geometric diamond patterning in the sprang technique. Opening slit 5 inches long. The ends of the top are tightly wrapped with silver cord and hang loose to form a five-inch tassel. Single faceted metal ring is attached.”
  • NT 1349539, 1700-1750; “Blue and red knitted silk long purse with one silk tassel.”
  • NT 1349538, 1750-1760; “Cream silk netted long purse decorated with silver lozenges with a pair of tassels at either end of silver wire and thread loops with silver sequins.”
  • The Country Man in London, 1771
  • Mercury as a Cutpurse by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1774
  • NT 1349537, 1775-1800; “Green silk long purse, 2/3 knitted, one third buttonholed with green silk and silk cored gold thread in a flower pattern and a star design. Decorated with one small green and gold tassel at either end.”
  • Widow Costard’s cow and goods, distrained for taxes, are redeemed by the generosity of Johnny Pearmain by Edward Penny, 1782
  • Old Wheat Sheaf in the Trap of Venus and Bacchus, 1782
  • Melpomene (caricature of Sarah Siddons) by James Gillray, 1784
  • A Fleet of Smugglers, with a Man of War in Tow, 1791
  • Jack’s return after Lord Howe’s glorious victory, 1794
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1971-1458, England, c. 1790-1840; “Stocking purse of pink knitted silk attached to rounded bag worked with buttonhole-stitch needle lace (probably worked over a purse mould). Knitted top has pattern of holes or dropped stitches forming dots, hearts, and diamonds. Rounded bag portion has design of strawberries and blue flowers on angular green stems worked with silk and metallic threads. The bottom of the bag is a coiled cord covered with metallic cord with a gold tassel in the center. The single slider ring is decorated with steel bosses.”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1971-1427, England, c. 1790-1840; “Stocking purse knitted in purple silk with multicolor patterning in rounded bag end. The rounded bag section is in a silver metallic stockinette stitch patterned by rows of repeating pink and red-orange flowers on green stems. This section has guard borders of purple with a silver vine. On the end is a ball covered with silver and purple and a green silk tassel. The upper portion is in purple silk in a stockinette stitch in an open-work diamond pattern, with a slit opening 7½ inches long. At the top are two bands of knitted silver and a tassel of silver metallic cord. The purse closes with two faceted steel slider rings.”
  • MFA 43.2417, a miser’s purse, late 18th century; “One and ring sablé in floral design, balance of purse green and pink silk.”

Work bags

This style is often associated with knotting. Many of the women holding these bags (in the portraits below) are actively using their knotting shuttles. Not that these bags were only used for knotting; there is Lady Mary Coke’s observation of a lady in 1769: “She had a knotting-bag, embroidered, hanging to her arm – "tho indeed", said she "I never knott, but the bag is convenient for one’s gloves and Fan".”

  • Met 2006.263, a redwork workbag, Britain, 1669
  • Crewel embroidered work bag, Britain, 1675
  • MFA 1971.648, embroidered in green wool on white fustian, England, 1683; “Pattern of thick stems with giant leaves with various different designs created with filling and speckling stitches; pattern same on both faces; green and white tassel. Green wools faded. Initialed 'M F,' dated '1683.'”
  • NT 597716, “sampler, undated, mid to late seventeenth century made into a bag in the ?18th century.”
  • V&A T.166-1984, England, 1701-1702; “Workbag embroidered in crewel wools in chain stitch on a plain woven linen and cotton ground. The bag is rectangular in shape. Using the full width of the material, it was worked as one long piece then side-seamed by butting and oversewing the selvedges. There is a contemporary linen lining. The embroidered design depicts on one side a central two-handled vase containing meandering stems with large-headed blooms (a carnation and other multi-petalled flowers) in shades of pink, red and brown.The stems and leaves are worked in shades of green and brown. This face of the bag is initialled E R on either side of the vase and dated 1701. Two exotic birds are embroidered on either side of the vase and there is a border design on three sides of both front and back showing meandering flowers and leaves in shades of pink, brown, yellow and green. The back has a similar floral design to the front, growing out of a shaded hillock. It is dated 1702. The bag is fastened by means of a drawstring of plaited linen and wools in green and fawn which runs through eyelet slits blanket stitched in green wool. The drawstring is decorated with three tassels made with linen heads decorated and fringed with natural linen and the same coloured wools used in the decorative embroidery. The bottom of the bag is decorated with a larger tassel.”
  • V&A T.205-1970, Britain, 1712; “Drawstring work-bag embroidered with coloured wools. Flowered border surrounding a group of fruit and flowers.”
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1978-390, a beadworked bag probably made in France c. 1725-1750
  • MFA 43.2377, French, 1730-1750; “Drawstring bag, made up of two rectangular panels of strung glass beads (called sablé) held together with looping stitches, with four beaded and salmon silk tassels. Salmon silk satin lining. Two scenes of conventionalized design of pomegranate plant with insects and swags of pomegranates above.”
  • Lucy, Duchess of Montrose by Benjamin Vandergucht, 1793, after an Andrea Soldi portrait c. 1740
  • NT 1355185, “Work bag - 18th century?, yellow, floral stripped brocade, gathered onto wooden pieces at top. Lined in white chintz.”
  • Portrait of a lady by Arthur Devis, c. 1750-1751
  • Met 1970.12, a French sewing bag, c. 1750-1760
  • MFA 43.2386, a drawstring bag with two panels of sablé beadwork with a design of blueberry bushes, France, c. 1750-1800
  • Madame Dangé by Louis Tocqué, 1753
  • Mrs. Charles Tudway by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1760-1765
  • NT 1367208, 1760-1775; “Embroidered work bag, cream satin with ribbon embroidery and chain stitch stems. Appears to have been made from a man's waistcoat. Drawstring bag, pink and brown ribbon brocaded in silver and lined in pinky-brown satin.”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1960-730, England, c. 1760-1780; “Woman's workbag or sewing purse of ivory-color finely ribbed silk, elaborately embroidered with silk, silver metallic threads, enameled metal (copper alloy?), and sequins, edged with silver lace. Purse is a modified teardrop or pear shape of fabric-covered paperboard with the addition of an attached drawstring bag. Purse has 4 compartments: a top shallow compartment with flip-up lid; a drawer that extends out of the side; a hinged double tufted pincushion that drops from the bottom, secured by a button and loop; and a drawstring bag stitched to the rear with fabric channels for holding knitting needles in place. Silver tinsel tassels trim the wide ribbon drawstring and handles. Purse is stiffened with paperboard, including trade cards that refer to A. King's on Dover Street, partly visible through the thin silk covering.”
  • Lady Lepel Hervey, Lady Mulgrave, c. 1765
  • Portrait of Archduchess Marie Christine of Austria, c. 1765
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1978-392-A, a lace-trimmed bag embroidered with a floral border and central design in chain stitch and ribbon embroidery, Netherlands, c. 1770-1790
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1978-392-C, a silk bag with floral sprigs embroidered in silks and ribbon embroidery, Netherlands, c. 1770-1790
  • Elizabeth de la Vallee de la Roche by Michel-Pierre Hubert Descours, 1771
  • A family group by Francis Wheatley, c. 1775-1780
  • Queen Charlotte with Charlotte, Princess Royal, by Benjamin West, 1776
  • Portrait of Mrs. Seymour Fort by John Singleton Copley, 1778
  • NT 1361071, 1780; “Fawn brocade in red, knotting bag with cord handle and lace trimming. Rectangular drawstring bag of mid-18th century tobine silk brocaded with floss silk and chenille, edged bobbin lace lined with cream silk, interlined linen, red drawstrings (lucet-worked).”
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1978-394, Dutch pink striped satin bag with a French cotton lining, c. 1780-1790
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1953-954, woman’s drawstring workbag, France, c. 1780-1800; “Drawstring bag consisting of two rectangular panels of cream ribbed silk embroidered with silk, couched metallic threads, sequins (paillettes), and enameled copper alloy, edged with silver gilt metallic lace. The design includes swags ending in double tassels, suspending a green wreath. A basket of flowers and heart are positioned under the wreath, with a ribbon motto reading 'Ce panier de fleur' (this flower basket). Flower sprays fill lower corners and an undulating leafy vine forms a border on the sides and bottom. The design is the same on the reverse, except the motto reads 'est l'homage de mon Coeur' (is the homage of my heart.) Lined with soft white silk.”
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1978-392-B, a lace-trimmed silk bag with floral decorations in chain stitch and ribbon embroidery, Netherlands, c. 1780-1800
  • Mr. Deputy Dumpling and Family Enjoying a Summer Afternoon, 1781
  • The Twelve Months: March, c. 1781
  • Portrait of Mrs. Pearce by Francis Wheatley, 1786
  • Rijksmuseum BK-KOG-90, a silk bag embroidered with garlands, partially in ribbon embroidery, Netherlands, 1786
  • The Rookes-Leeds Family by Arthur Devis
  • LACMA M.81.94a-c, Lisbon, c. 1787; “Work bag: Silk and gold embroidery, sequins, paste stones, wax seals, painted wood
  • Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, c. 1788-1789
  • Instructions for WORK-BAGS given as Rewards, to be “given to each girl when she has finished the first pair of stockings of her own knitting,” Instructions for cutting out apparel for the poor, 1789
  • NT 1367121, c. 1790; “Rectangular drawstring or knotting bag of tobine silk brocaded with floss silk and chenille edged bobbin lace, lined in cream silk and interlined with linen. The brocade tobine re-used from dress / suit of 1750/60. Red drawstrings.”
  • NT 1360327, 1794; “Work or knotting bag. Flat rectangular bag, silvery - purple moire silk (warp-faced weftwise rib) weft patterned in crimson or white to give brocaded effect. Embroidered 'AW 1794'. Made from dress / suit fabric of second quarter of 18th century.”
  • Met C.I.60.26.17, c. 1795
  • LACMA M.83.281.2, France, c. 1799; “Silk satin with weft-float and supplementary weft-float patterning, silk floss and chenille passementerie with silk fly fringe, and silk cord”
  • MFA 09.367, America, late 18th-early 19th century; “Fine white linen or cotton, embroidered in white with bunches of flowers in chain-stitch, laid-work, french-knots and a curl-like stitch called by the Italians punto riccio. Four tassels.”
  • Rijksmuseum BK-1978-396-C, a bag made of striped silk taffeta, Wormerveer (Netherlands), c. 1800-1810
  • NT 1152452, 1803; “Fabric of off-white silk, plain weave, unbalanced taffeta. Embroidery of red and green metal leaf and flower sequins, metal bullion, metal plate couched in silk. Trimmed with off-white cotton lace edging; and off-white silk taffeta ribbon. Hand sewn. Label handwritten in ink 'Work Bag/ Work of C. Cust/ for her Mother/ Dowr. Lady Brownlow/1803'.”