Sunday, June 8, 2008

Apple #322: Pockets

The subject of pockets has come up in conversations with friends enough times that I thought that I must investigate. Because what if none of your clothes had pockets? No pockets in your skirts or pants or shorts or shirts, that's not too unthinkable because we all have some of those types of clothes that do not have pockets. But what if none of those items had pockets? And no pockets in your coat, either? A pretty major innovation, those pockets.

  • I can't find anything that backs me up on this, but it is my theory that the first pockets were part of saddles and draped across horses' backs. It is also my theory that, at some point, people decided that if the horse could carry a bag with pockets, then so could they.

Display of items made by the Nez Perce, a native tribe whom scholars estimate to have lived in the Pacific Northwest for some 10,000 years. Saddle bags are hanging in the upper middle portion of the photo.
(Photo from the Clearwater Historical Museum in Idaho)

  • Nobody knows when the first pockets for humans were invented. But scholars do know that the first pockets were not sewn into clothes but they were little bags worn outside the clothes, usually on a string that tied around the waist.
  • If this item sounds a lot like a purse, that's because it is. The words "pocket" and "purse" actually come from the same Germanic root word which means "bag."
  • One example of these types of early bag/pockets that you might be familiar with are the pouches that the Scots wore with their kilts. The word for those is sporran (which is a descendant of the Latin bursa, which means "purse").

This Scottish lad is proudly wearing his full kilt with sporran -- even though he's in Australia, not Scotland.
(This complete outfit and others like it are available for hire from Melbourne Kilt)

The little girl who is getting a garland of hop leaves sewn to her hat is wearing a pocket on her right side.
(Painting is William Frederick Witherington's "The Hop Garland" from 1834. Photo from the Victoria & Albert)

  • Later, other types of pockets were made to be tied around the waist and worn at the right or left side, easy to access with whichever hand you preferred.

This pocket from the early 1700s was worn outside the clothing and embroidered to make it decorative. The slit which allows the wearer easy access to the pocket's contents, is also embellished.
(Photo from the Victoria & Albert)

  • The problem with these outer pockets was that, just as they were easy for the wearer to access, they were also easy for thieves to dip into or even remove entirely from the wearer's person. So people started keeping them underneath their clothing, to make it harder for thieves to get to.
  • By the way, some pictures and drawings of these early pockets remind me of the kind of carrying pouches that people use today when traveling: simple canvas bags that are just large enough to hold passports and wallets, and which travelers are encouraged to wear beneath their clothes, for safety's sake.

A pair of pockets on a single string, designed to be worn beneath women's dresses and above the petticoat, from about 1800-1830 ish.
(Photo from the Victoria & Albert)

The "neck wallet" recommended by that seasoned traveler Rick Steves. It's a little more sophisticated, with the zippers and the cinchable strap, but the concept is an old, old one.
(The Essential Silk Wallet can be yours, from the Rick Steves website, for $12.95)

  • But the problem with the secreted pocket was the same as what many travelers find frustrating about those identity pouches: it's super annoying to try to get anything out of it without having to disrobe in public.
  • So then people started making slits in their clothing to make it easier to reach those under-the-clothing pockets. A thief could still slip his or her hand in there, but at least that was presented more difficulty than the above-the-clothes pocket. This slit-in-the-clothes innovation marked the beginning of the use of the word "pocket" as distinct from "purse" or other words meaning "bag," etc.

This woman is demonstrating how slits in the outer layers allowed access to the pockets beneath.
(Photo from The Staymaker, which includes other photos of how women dressed in the 18th century)

  • By the 1700s, men's pockets were sewn into their clothes, but women's pockets were typically still a separate item. (This is where the pocket branched into two forks -- pockets versus purses, one for each gender.)
  • Often, women wore their pocket/pouches underneath their dresses or beneath their petticoats. Most skirts and petticoats were made with a slit so the woman could discreetly insert her hand into the pocket.
  • Sometimes women still wore a pocket outside her clothes, but it often had embroidery all over it and became an item of fashion. So the external pocket evolved into a purse, and it became common for some women to have the purse that was on view as a fashionable object for all to see, as well as the hidden pocket that carried hidden secrets like letters or coins.
  • In general, what did people keep in their pockets in the way-back-when times? Well, it depends on which century you're thinking of, but basically, here are some of the items people used to keep in their pockets, roughly in chronological order:
      • Coins -- in fact, some believe that pockets were originally invented for the sole purpose of carrying coins. Other items found their way into pockets later.
      • Food (biscuits, jerky, fruit, candies, etc.)
      • Watches
      • Rings or other jewelry
      • Handkerchiefs
      • Love letters (billets-doux)
      • Pincushion, thimble, scissors, or other sewing implements
      • Small knife for cutting the pages of books or opening envelopes
      • Pencil case, pen nibs, other writing utensils
      • Mirror, scent bottles, combs
      • Miniature bottles or flasks of gin, whiskey, or other liquor
      • Snuff boxes
      • Rail or theater tickets
      • Eyeglasses

With the exception of the newspaper, these are the objects found in Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night of his assassination: wallet, a five-dollar bill, two kinds of eyeglasses, a pocket knife, can't tell if it's a handkerchief or the playbill, what looks like a change purse, and some other object that maybe was used for sealing envelopes? Click here to see the photo at a larger size.
(Photo from the Library of Congress)

  • Since the line "Potato I have" from Ulysses frequently goes through my mind, and since Bloomsday is coming up, here are at least some of the items that Leopold Bloom, at one time or another, carries in his pockets in 1904. I'm sure he's got more things in there, but without re-reading the whole novel tonight, this is the best I can come up with:
      • Potato
      • Latchkey
      • Pork kidney
      • Bar of lemon soap
      • Bottle of perfume (Rose of Castile)
      • Yellow flower with a pin
      • Love letter
      • Newspaper
      • His card
  • Now, in addition to many of the things I've already listed, people carry other, newfangled objects in their pockets -- items that people in the 18th or even early 20th centuries never would have imagined:
      • Cell phones, Blackberries, pagers
      • iPods
      • Flash drives
      • Car keys
      • Driver's license, credit cards
      • Disposable Kleenex

What else do you carry in your pockets that I haven't listed here?

BBC, The Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything, A Very Brief History of the Pocket
Victoria & Albert Museum, Pockets
Jeff Elder, "History of Pockets? Lint me your ears; more,"
Jewish World Review, March 3, 2004
Barbara Burman and Seth Denbo, The history of pockets, posted by the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS) at the University College for the Creative Arts


  1. Sometimes I carry my GPS in my pocket, when I take it out of my car for safekeeping, or when I'm using it in pedestrian mode.

  2. I'm reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer right now. The main character wants to have detachable pockets with velcro on the outside. They would be longer than regular pockets, socklike. This would allow people to carry longer matches, candy bars, and chapsticks.

  3. Jarred, the GPS is another gizmo I had not thought of. Is that really part of the iPhone, or is it a device separate from the iPhone?

    Jim, that sounds like pockets you'd find in cargo pants -- the kind your friend Karl wears!

    I'd like to carry candy bars in my pockets, but I think they'd get too gooey. Maybe someone will invent the insulated pants pocket for just such a need.

  4. The iPhone can triangulate your location using cell phone signals, but I have a real GPS, a separate unit. It's the obnoxious things you see suction-cupped to people's car windshields.

    I have carried candy bars in my pockets, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups to be exact, and they're never in a good condition when you take them out.


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