Handbags, purses, pocketbooks… all the same thing?

Brown textile handbag, or is it a clutch? with glass fox handle, from the Fashion History Museum collection, c. late 1930s

In a recent web search I came across a museum for handbags in the Netherlands that I never knew existed. This reminded me of a discussion on the Vintage Fashion Guild a few months back about the definitions of the words ‘purse’ and ‘bag’. The responses revealed a surprising list of various regional definitions.

For the English (and Australians), a purse is what North Americans call a ladie’s change or coin purse while most North Americans think of ‘purse’ as a generic term. The term handbag is used in England to mean specifically the accessory carried by ladies, while in North America, the term is specific to a small bag with one or two handles to hold onto or loop over your wrist. In the U.S. handbags are generally considered to be a more formal version of a ‘bag’ which covers all forms of everyday hand and shoulder bags of various sizes (but for totes or backpacks.)

Alligator handbag, or is it a purse? From the Fashion History Museum collection, c. 1900

The largest difference between Canadians and Americans was the American use of the old English term ‘pocketbook’ which originated from a type of wallet that fit into the pocket in the 18th century. The term was first used to describe a woman’s hard sided handbag in 1816, as opposed to a drawstring closed soft-sided reticule (aka dorothy bag). Pocketbook is now an archaic word in England and Canada and becoming increasingly scarce in the U.S. but is still used by some to describe the difference between a soft and hard sided handbag. 

For the English, a wallet is a masculine style of purse, whereas in North America there are men’s and ladie’s wallets, with men’s wallets (aka billfolds) being smaller to fit into back pockets of trousers (or as Americans would say – pants).

While all of this can be confusing, just remember one important thing, if you travel to England just call your ‘fannypack’ a money belt…

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.

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4 Responses to Handbags, purses, pocketbooks… all the same thing?

  1. Karin says:

    I visited the handbag museum in Amsterdam last year – and can only recommend it! It’s located in a typical old house, and there is so much to see!

    Karin

  2. liz says:

    According to the doyenne of What Is Proper, Nancy Mitford, the term “handbag” is seriously non-U and a term to be avoided, at least for the English upper classes. I quote from her book The Pursuit of Love (1945):

    “Uncle Matthew: ‘Education! I was always led to believe that no educated person ever spoke of notepaper, and yet I hear poor Fanny asking Sadie for notepaper. What is this education? Fanny talks about mirrors and mantelpieces, handbags and perfume, she takes sugar in her coffee, she has a tassel on her umbrella … Fancy hearing one’s wife talk about notepaper – the irritation!'”

    The preferred terms for the items mentioned are mirror=looking-glass; mantelpiece=chimney-piece; perfume=scent; notepaper=writing-paper; but no immediate equivalent for “handbag” is mentioned. I believe “bag” is considered sufficient now, but perhaps “pocketbook” would have been appropriate at time of writing. Another interesting point is that an upper-class male carries a “notecase” instead of a “wallet”.

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