History of the Handbag

Why do we have love handbags so much? Ask a hundred women and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers, but when did our modern love affair with handbags start? To answer that question, we’ve taken a journey back through time to look at the origins of our humble and beloved handbag.

Timeless Bags

It’s believed the word bag is a direct descendant of the original Nordic word “baggi” meaning “bundle” or “burden”, but it is also comparable to the old Greek word “bástagma”, which means “load”, and the French word “bagage” which of course means “baggage”.

As a way of carrying important items around with us, the bag has been around since before recorded history began. It has been fundamental to the development of the human race as it allowed a person to carry far more things than they could readily carry in their hands. Remind your man of that the next time you want a new handbag!

The earliest bags would have been made from animal skin or woven plant folded up at the corners and secured. Later small leather pouches with a drawstring would allow the wearer to loop them through a belt.

Mummies with Bags

When the well-persevered naturally mummified body was found in the Alps they were found to be carrying a leather pouch which had been sown to their belt. It contained a collection of useful items: dried tinder fungus (a prehistoric lighter), a scraper, drill, flint flake and a 7 cm bone used for various jobs from sewing to tattooing, or simply as a toothpick. This pouch had an opening which could be closed with a fine leather thong.

It was determined that mummy lived around 3300 BC therefore making the pouch over 5300 years old. This surely has to be the oldest surviving bag in the world! Bags were also prevalent in ancient Egypt with many 4000 year old tomb hieroglyphs portraying people with bags tied around their waist, much like the money pouches of today.

According to the National Geographic, archaeologists recently discovered the world’s oldest surviving handbag buried in a German grave. It has been dated at somewhere between 2500 and 2200 BC. Most of the material it was made of had disintegrated over the millennia, but the distinct shape of the outer flap could still be made out due to its hard decorative covering of dogs teeth. That’s right… dog’s teeth! Quite the fashion statement.


The Birth of the Modern Handbag

It has been recently discovered that Iraqi women from the 14th Century were possibly the first women to use handbags that were both practical and decorative. In 2014, the Courtauld Gallery in London displayed what is thought to be the oldest surviving handbag in history (that could be instantly recognised as such). A 700 year old handbag that originated from the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq, with new evidence suggesting it could have been made as early as 1300. The handbag looks like any clutch bag you might see in the shops today being beautifully inlaid with gold and silver.

It was during the 14th century that many historians believe the term “bag” first came into existence as we know it today and the social status of the handbag began. In particular the belt bag became very popular. It was made of calf or goat skin and had a large detachable looped handle. As pockets had not yet been invented they were a much sought after piece of attire. In addition women started to wear these bags as a way of identifying a person’s social standing.

Fashion Handbags

In the 15th century the handbag slowly became to be known more as a woman’s fashion accessory and it is during this century that they become associated with weddings and marriage as quite often a groom would give a handbag (commonly known as a purse) to their bride as a wedding gift. These would be heavily embroidery and the wealthier you were the more lavishly they were adorned. Ecclesiastical purses were also very significant in this period and were used to carry relics and seals. It was a way of showing social status and allowing the carrier to be identified as an important person.

In the 16th century pockets, called “bagges”, or “girdle pouches”, were sown into women’s clothing which allowed them to carry small personal items on their body, such as handkerchiefs, scented flowers and smelling salts.These would be concealed in their expensive under garments as women wanted the observer to concentrate on their lavish style dresses, rather than any accessories. In contrast men’s fashion became increasingly ornate and even peasants and travellers started to wear cloth bags diagonally across the body. In addition “swete bags” were also worn by the wealthy during this period. These were adeptly named because they contained sweet smelling material, such as lavender, to mask the unpleasant odours due to extremely poor hygiene.

Embroidered Handbags

In the 17th century embroidery was very popular with women and making your own handbag was an important skill and accomplishment for a young lady to master, hence the reason why ornately stitched bags became very popular in society. And the giving of these bags to your nearest and dearest as gifts was also seen as a very thoughtful and impressive thing, whilst In return it allowed the woman to demonstrate her sewing and embroidery skills in the hope that it would raise her up within the social circles of the day. There was also, for a time, a resurgence in the use of pouches but they were far more intricate and showy than they had been in Elizabethan times.

By the late 18th century women fashion had changed from the large flowing full bodied dress style to a more slender, narrow neo-classical fashion which left little room for pockets or pouches therefore there was a greater need for handbags and it was at this time that dependence upon them started to grow significantly as people, especially women, began to realize their importance and usefulness. The English called them “resticules”, “ridicules” or “indispensables”. These were small silk embroidered drawstring bags that often contained things like handkerchief, fan, dance card, perfume, or cosmetics such as face powder or rouge – so not unlike what you might expect to find in a modern woman’s handbag.

Victorian Handbags

The 19th century and the Victorian period brought a new independence for women as never seen before. And it was during this period that the word “handbag”, as a reference we understand today, truly came into being. The advent of train travel lead to a greater dependency on hand-held luggage as people started to travel more and needed more everyday items readily available to them. The term “handbag” was a consequence of this development and they began to be manufactured for this growing demand rather than being made, as they had in the past, by the women themselves or a dressmaker (if they could afford one). And as technology developed there was also a move to make woman’s handbags out of many different fabrics (tapestry, silk, lace, velvet) and we see them purposely being created to match various outfits for various occasions.

The Victorian handbag also changed from having a simple drawstring fastener to circular and square shape handbags with metal clasp fasteners and chain handles. These bags were often heavily decorated with beading and needlework and for the first time we see them being advertised (as patterns for them to make) in women’s magazines of that time. However women still wanted to impress people with their embroidery skills, especially any potential future husband, and they still spent substantial amounts of time embroidering handbags marking them with the date and their own initials in order to produce their own unique piece of work.


Modern Handbags

By the early 20th Century women were carrying handbags every time they went out and as a consequence they became increasingly popular. Their success was in part due to their constantly adaptation to a changing society and its needs. Nowadays handbags are likely to hold lipsticks, sunglasses, baby wipes, e-cigarettes and make-up as well as food and medicines; whereas years ago it was fashionable to carry as little as possible in order to look delicate and dainty. These days the modern woman uses her handbag to basically get her through the day which can frequently involve travelling, working, dealing with children or studying. Therefore the typical size of a bag has increased to reflect this growing trend. For example shoulder bags became popular just before and during World War II.

20th century technology has seen a variety of new textures and materials from synthetics to natural fabric being used, including rain proof materials. Alongside this special bags have been developed to accommodate our changing lifestyles, such as tote bags for the beach and cross-body bags to free up our hands. These days women have many different style handbags to meet the need of every occasion, rather than a single bag for all occasions.

Nowadays the handbag is an item that definitely separates the sexes as men much prefer to carry things in their pockets. There was an attempt to introduce the male handbag but it never really caught on. While it is not unusual to see a man with a messenger type bag, it is not particularly common place. And in addition women’s clothing, unlike men’s, inevitably have no pockets therefore a woman needs her handbag and feels lost without it.

Handbags have always been very personal to the individual as they often hold the essential things needed for everyday use, hobbies, interests, emergencies, work, or just for comfort. It is also an unspoken law that you never look in another person’s handbag as it can also often hold her secrets. Quite often these days’ women carry more than one bag at the same time in order to meet the different aspects of their daily routine such as work, office, gym, business meetings, social events etc.

Handbags go back to the beginning of mankind and have become a practicality and a fashion statement for women of all ages. And as the market for handbag designs continues to grow, the choices available to women are becoming more and more varied which means everyone can find a handbag that suits them. And long may it continue!!