Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

Primary Source of the Month

Folding men's pocket book covered with wool flame-stitch embroidery, America, 1771. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Folding men's pocketbook covered with wool flame-stitch embroidery, America, 1771. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

In the eighteenth century, both men and women carried pocketbooks to hold their valuables. Such pocketbooks—rectangular in shape and rather flat—held currency and important papers. A gentleman's pocketbook could be hidden away in a deep coat pocket where it was secure from loss or theft. Because they were valued by their owners, pocketbooks were often mentioned in wills, inventories, and diaries, and even show up in an occasional newspaper lost and found advertisement.

Typically, eighteenth-century pocketbooks were made of leather or cloth. The elaborately decorated pocketbook shown above is worked in an Irish stitch with wool crewel yarn on linen fabric. It is lined with a plain fabric and finished with an edge of woven tape. The pocketbook also bears the embroidered name "Seth Drew" and the date "1771," perhaps indicating that it was constructed by a loved one as a gift. Not all pocketbooks were home made-many were manufactured for sale by merchants, and some could even be purchased used from a second-hand shop.

Lady's pocket, crewel wool needlewook on linen, America, ca. 1765-1775. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.It is likely that women's pocketbooks were smaller in size, making them easier to slip into their pockets. During the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries, women's clothing was not constructed with interior, sewn-in pockets. Instead, a woman tied a separate pocket (or pair of pockets) around her waist beneath the layers of her petticoat, skirt, and apron. These U-shaped pockets were then accessed through slits in the outerwear.

The types of items a woman carried in a pocket(s) could include spectacles for reading, keys, a pocketbook, jewelry, letters, sewing implements (scissors, pins, needles, thread, etc.), fan, gloves, or even a small book. Carrying these items in a pocket secured them from theft, kept them away from prying eyes, and made them easily accessible for use. Because a woman's pocket was a separate garment, it could be lost if it came untied. A familiar nursery rhyme describes the loss of a pocket:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket;
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it

Some women's pockets were available for purchase through both the second-hand trade and ready-made clothing market. However, a pocket made by a family member or a friend was often a treasured gift with sentimental value. This may help to explain why many ornately decorated pockets survive in excellent shape today in museums and collections worldwide.