The almost forgotten rhyme
“Lucy locket lost her pocket ,Kitty fisher found it ,not a penny was there in it but the binding round it ”
Is the only remaining record in popular culture of a little known yet long treasured item of women’s clothing and its meaning is like pockets themselves becoming lost to history.
Pockets were an essential item of dress for many centuries and were once the most emotionally valuable item a woman could posses as can be seen by amount of work often put in to making and decorating these never seen items.
In our modern homes ,we can probably never appreciate the value of these items to women in past centuries.Until the early years of the 20th c it was not unusual for adults to share beds with siblings and certainly most would have shared rooms .If you were a servant or governess of lived away from home in a boarding school as either a pupil or teacher , your personal possessions could be searched if a theft had occurred,or examined to ensure you were” forming habits of orderliness ” or merely by the curious (there is an incident recorded in Charlotte Brontes Villette of the owner of a school rifling through her new teachers clothing and possessions while the teacher is assumed to be asleep)even your underwear was not private ,,there are many records of laundry fees being charged to governess ,pupils etc,I have seen many items of Victorian clothing with names written or embroidered into them and though I can find no confirmation of it I suspect this is because the items would be washed in common with other clothing in big houses ,schools etc as there is no other logical reason for it,,why write your name on underwear you will be either wearing ,storing in your chest of drawers or washing yourself..There was therefore very little privacy, richer women may have had writing boxes or work boxes but even these were not entirely secure, they were often left open or could be easily picked or forced openThe pocket was for many years a womans only secure place for items she wanted to keep private or secure.
Pockets could be single or a matching pair.
they were usually lined and fastened with tape ties,though size varies Most are a similar shape to those above and around 10 to 12 ins deep and are accessed by front openings.Some are larger ,very few are smaller ,I personally find pockets around 12 ins deep by 6 wide at their base the best size as they are large enough for bulky items but not too cumbersome
Pockets were also a common gift from women to other women perhaps on birthdays ,weddings etc .Pockets could also be bought ready-made but this is less common than making your own.(simple un embroidered Pockets are fairly quick to make,I can make a pair in a day and if I use embroidered fabrics or damask they can still look surprisingly effective )
perhaps letters from loved ones, mementoes ,keys to her writing box or trunk.Alongside its value as a private space ,it was invaluable on a practical level ,it acted very much like the modern workmans tool belt,containing things needed regularly such as watches,scissors, pins ,handkerchiefs ). They also acted much like our modern handbags containing mirrors,combs ,money ,perhaps perfume ,smelling salts , a frequent item is a long pin ,,used for securing hats or neck kerchiefs,etc ,this must have been not just useful for securing clothing but seems to have been seen as a defensive item from time to time,we have one story from Samuel Pepys diary were a lady he is flirting with in church threatens him with a long hat pin . Larger pockets seemed to have also been used to tuck away snacks .I have complied a list of possible pocket contents through the ages( my source is primarily the V and A excellent article http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/history-of-pockets/ but includes some extra items from newspapers ,inquests etc and some items mentioned as ladies possessions in the 16thc)
Almost always mentioned are
Items of jewellery such as brooches
pins of assorted kinds
small knives (needed for an assortment of things ,to sharpen pencils ,pen nibs,to open letters, cut open the pages of books as these often came uncut par fruit)
Very frequently mentioned and most often recommended by ladies advice columns ,magazines or letters
small Pins/pin cushion
needles /needle case
(I also assume in instances where these are being carried outside the home the contents included small amounts of thread,,or the thimble and needles are somewhat useless but as most external pocket contents are based on instances of theft which only require records of items of value thread would go unrecorded)
pocket watch ( perhaps rarely in earlier centuries pocket sundials which were carried by the rich)
spectacles (if worn)
objects of sentimental value ,lockets, locks of hair,miniature portraits ,love letters,
Less frequently and probably for outside use
Gloves (though mittens seem to have been stashed in pockets when at home)
letters,passports, tickets etc
The words pocket knife,pocket watch ,pocket handkerchief ,pocket-book all show the original home of such items .
The word Pocket is I am told an old English word (12th to 15th c ) however .I feel it likely they were then a visible external items as they could not have been worn under the fitted Kirtles of the early middle ages.These Kirtles did have openings as can be seen here in a painting from the late 14thc but its hard to imagine enough space for pockets large enough to store anything but a few pennies without spoiling the line of the gown and the cord ties of a pocket around the waist would possible cause an unslightly wrinkle at the waist a little bit like our underwear VPL which spoils the look of fitted skirts and trousers in the present day
I cant find any reference to pockets discovered in medieval graves, eg the Smithfeild plague pits (though later pockets are fabrics which are unlikely to survive some early 16th examples have wirework decorations or use fabric with metalic thread work and this could have survived.Unfortunately I have been unable to gain access to original excavation reports so its possible there are fragments which may have been pockets .)
It is still hard to imagine gowns with the fitted shape of that below could conceal a typical pocket
There are many examples of extant pouches which are top openings and look a little like bags ,these seem to be outer wear as it would be hard to access that kind of opening under a gown and the style suggests a hand bag style object or at least a bag to go on a belt
Certainly in the 13th c Pouches were outerwear as seen on this tomb from 1283
If we assume pockets became under gown items with the rise of the houppelande around the 1380s/90s
That still leaves at least 450 years of widespread use and another 50 years when they became rarer but were still worn though they seem to die out in widespread under gown use around 1840 .There are many 184os pockets surviving though they tend to be plainer than earlier examples ,,these come from the Kay Shuttleworth collection
The use of pockets dies out later for children and they continue in use amongst the elderly and the lower classes.
There is a mention of them in a few novels such as David Copperfield, 1850,:
‘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.’
.I suspect in the 1850s the pockets demise among younger women as a common item of underwear was influenced by the degree to which a woman could afford the fashionable cage crinolines as,though crinolines have a gap at the front it would be very difficult to access pockets via it and I have never seen an 1850s gown which had either pocket slits or was fastened in a way that would allow easy access to pockets.I personally find it easy and very useful to wear pockets under gowns from the Tudor era up until the late 1830s after which it becomes harder to accommodate a pocket.(ironically the most common use for pockets amongst re enactors is for mobile phones ! as while professional re enactments require absolute authenticity down to the lack of undergarments,,pockets are a great place to stash “forbidden modern comforts)
There are miscellaneous later references in stories but ,,the last official records I can find of tie on pockets is in the inquest notes of the Rippers victims from the late 1880s one is described as having had” A large pocket worn under the skirt and tied about the waist with strings (empty when found) another was wearing a pair of pockets and another single pocket also tie on (footnote 1)Another ripper victim Elizabeth stride (d 1888) has a petticoat with a large pocket,,I own a mid-Victorian petticoat with such a pocket and in shape and size it mirrors the original tie on pockets .One ripper victims (Elizabeth strides)had contained or at least still had in it at the time she was found..
- A key (as of a padlock)
- A small piece of lead pencil
- Six large and one small button
- A comb
- A broken piece of comb
- A metal spoon
- A hook (as from a dress)
- A piece of muslin
- One or two small pieces of paper
- (Manchester’s Platt hall has several lower middle class /upper lower class basic pockets which were probably of the kind worn by the rippers victims)
(This image and several more of pockets can be found in this excellent online resource for the visual arts VAD http://www.vads.ac.uk/large.php?uid=94098&sos=12)m
I personally suspect pockets did not go out of use but merely changed use and were transferred to petticoats .I am not sure how long they survive in petticoats .
There is no other item of hidden clothing for which we have such an enduring record and which changes so little in design over so long a period.
The majority of surviving pockets up to the 1800s are almost without exception beautifully made often they are embroidered or use expensive fabrics gleaned from scraps of expensive gowns ,later in the 1800 to 1820 when straight regency gowns become fashionable pockets become less ornate and often white,,so as not to show under the gowns ,,a further proof I feel that pockets continued in very general use throughout the regency era of straight often light coloured gowns , The pockets seem to have continued to be less ornate up until their eventual demise but even simple pockets are still beautifully stitched .The obvious time lavished on them and the use of decoration on unseen items is enough to tell us something of their importance to women ,pocket decoration is purely for the woman herself ,not to show off her husband’s status or her own accomplishments .
If you would like to make your own pocket the V and A Museum has a guide here
Hidden or on display?
Pockets for most of their history and in most countries were very rarely worn outside of clothing or designed to be objects of display.The pockets of the lower classes in the 16th to early 19th c might peep from beneath aprons or hitched over skirts but no lady wishing to appear genteel would usually wish hers to be on display .Interestingly for a while in 16thc Italy it was briefly fashionable for ladies to wear a lavishly made pocket at their waist , one was found tied to the body of Eleanor of Toledo beneath her satin gown and they can be seen on numerous Italian paintings.
http://aneafiles.webs.com/saccoccia.html, footnote 2)
I can find no record of the fashion spreading to the UK though its possible it was a feature of fashionable”undress” wear .
http://www.casebook.org/victims/chapman.html ,The ripper victims provide a tragic but invaluable source of costume information ,unlike fashion magazines or novels these poor lower class ladies are shown in their everyday clothing The pockets found on the victims were the kind now completely lost to us ,made from rough fabrics and purely functional those of a kind used by the poorest and lowest classes eg Catherine Eddows owned a pair made of unbleached calico and a further single one made of bed ticking .I use this website as it is the most accurate and “user friendly”online source.
The source given for detailed treatment of pockets is excellent and the website is recommended for study of 16th Italian clothing ,I do however disagree with Anea who considers the Duchess Eleanor of Toledo was buried in a gown with an integral pocket,I feel the pocket description as being tied on was accurate ,its likely she was buried with a few private possessions which may have perished .The items which survived best in Eleanor’s grave were those in very close contact with the body such as stays or stockings or those under the body ,this is because fluids escaping during putrification preserved them.
Pocket contents list has been taken largely from information here