Madeira Mondays: Why 18th century pockets were pretty great

Lucy Locket lost her pocket

Kitty Fisher found it

not a penny was there in it

only ribbons round it.

When I first heard that nursery rhyme as a kid, I was confused. How could somebody lose a pocket? Aren’t they like…sewn inside your clothes? A pocket is not the sort of thing that could fall out of a pair of jeans.

It was only much later when I was researching 18th century women’s clothes that I discovered that women’s pockets of yesteryear were very different to the pockets that were sewn into my modern clothes. In the 18th century, women did have pockets, but they were separate pieces of clothing – they looked like little sacks that you tied around your waist with a bit of ribbon or string. Kind of hard to explain verbally, but it makes sense when you see them! Check out this image below.

An example of 18th century pockets, these are from 1700-1750, image from The Met museum

And here’s another pocket, this one was made in 1784 in America.

Another example of a pocket. Image from the Met Museum website

And here’s what it looks like when a woman put one on!

This image is from Pinterest and shows a woman with a pocket tied around her waist

Think of 18th century pockets like tiny handbags which people kept under their skirts. There were slits in skirts so that you could reach your hand through and access the pocket whenever you needed! So what could you keep in there? Well: whatever you needed! Maybe keys, coins, a hairbrush, a thimble, handkerchief, snacks, a secret love letter, your lucky penny, etc. etc.

Pockets could be elaborately decorated, or they might be very simple. But this tying on of pockets is how Lucy Locket was able to lose her pocket…it simply fell off! (Which, I imagine, was a thing that could happen and would surely be as startling and unhappy a thing to discover as when you leave your handbag somewhere!)

Regular readers might recall my recent review of The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton where I really went to town on that novel for a bit of dialogue between two 17th century characters where a woman is complaining to someone about her gown ‘not having pockets’. I was like…go buy a pocket! What are you talking about? (I’m just kidding. Kind of. I actually don’t know how it was in the 17th century but I’m fairly certain that pockets were pretty much like this and this character’s complaint about a dress not having ‘pockets’ was the author’s short-hand for her being an active, ‘modern’ woman who was more concerned with the functionality of her clothes than of their visual appearance. But, again, this character was a noble woman who probably wouldn’t think about clothing this way…but I digress again.)

I pride myself in not being a ‘pedantic’ reader of historical fiction, especially since I write it myself and I know how difficult it is to get every last detail right. In short: you can’t! I’ve had the privilege of working with historians in the past and countless times my PhD supervisor, who is an incredible historian, would look at something I’d written, something I’d spent tons of time researching to get right and gently shake his head and be like…’No. That’s not how that worked.’ So, I’ve got compassion there for sure. BUT, this small moment really bugged me for some reason and I was thinking about it again today…which inspired this post!

Do you like the look of 18th century pockets? They were a relatively ‘useful’ element of women’s dress in the period, whereas a lot of the other elements were more decorative and (depending on your class) a lot more restricting!

Thanks so much for reading, and hopefully you were able to view this post okay? I’ve been having trouble with WordPress’ Block Editor (fellow WordPress users, do you dislike block editor too?? It’s so much harder to use than the Classic one!). I’ve been troubleshooting with it, but trying not to let that interrupt the schedule of posts.

Hope you’re having a good start to the summer, and let me know what you thought of today’s post! There’s a couple of good posts coming up including a historical site visit, book reviews, and more.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

PS Today’s Featured Image is Colyer’s ‘Still Life’, c. 1696

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