A History of Pockets
From the 17th century to the late 19th century, most women had at least one pair of pockets, which served a similar purpose as a handbag does today. There are no pockets visible on this woman’s ensemble of 1760. They were usually worn underneath their petticoats.
William Nutter, after William Redmore Bigg, ‘The Penny Lost’, England, 1803. Museum no. 28427.7
Sack-back gown, Britain, 1760. Museum no. T.77-1959
Men didn’t wear separate pockets, as theirs were sewn into the linings of their coats, waistcoats and breeches.
Location of pockets in men’s breeches, England, 1770-80
Detail of pocket on a man’s waistcoat, Britain, about 1750s. Museum no. T.197-1975
What did people keep in their pockets?
Sovereign coin of the Commonwealth, England, about 1653.
There were no mobile phones, car keys or credit cards in the 18th century. Nevertheless, women kept a wide variety of objects in their pockets. In the days when people often shared bedrooms and household furniture, a pocket was sometimes the only private, safe place for small personal possessions.
- Objects of vanity (mirror, scent bottle, snuffbox and comb)
- Bonbon box
- Even a bottle of gin
Snuff boxes, England, about 1765-75. Museum nos. C.470-1914 and C.478-1914
Eighteen Maxims of Neatness and Order, written by Theresa Tidy in 1819, lists the essentials for a pocket:
'It is also expedient to carry about you a purse, a thimble, a pincushion, a pencil, a knife and a pair of scissors, which will not only be an inexpressible source of comfort and independence, by removing the necessity of borrowing, but will secure the privilege of not lending these indispensable articles.
Pincushion, England, about 1900
Other useful things found in pockets were keys, spectacles, a watch and pocket books (diaries).
Buying and losing pockets
Many pockets were handmade and they were often given as gifts. Some were made to match a petticoat or waistcoat. Some were made over from old clothes or textiles. Pockets could also be bought 'ready made’. On the tradecard shown, the haberdasher (seller of dress accessories) advertises both pockets and fabrics to make pockets.
Haberdasher’s tradecard, England, 18th century. Museum no. 12853.12
However, many pockets were stolen - in the 18th and 19th centuries, thieves known as 'pickpockets’ removed men’s wallets and cut the strings of women’s pockets.
The records of Old Bailey Courthouse document the prosecutions of many pickpockets, for example:
'On 5 November 1716:
Robert Draw of London, labourer, was indicted for privately stealing from Martha Peacock a linen Pocket (value 2 shillings), 1 holland handkerchief (value 1 shilling), a pair of white gloves (value 1 shilling), a pair of scissors and 3 keys, on the 1st of December last, The prosecutor depos’d, that as she was going along the street, the prisoner came behind her, thrust his hand up her riding-hood, and pulled her pocket off; that upon her crying out, he was followed and knocked down, and the pocket found upon him. The prisoner deny’d the fact, but the jury found him guilty to the value of 10 pence.’
OBP 5 November 1716 Robert Draw (t17161105-31)
The Old Bailey records tell us that thieves used a variety of methods to snatch pockets such as cutting the pocket strings and grabbing the pocket or slashing the pocket itself so the contents fell out. Securing your pockets while you were asleep was difficult. Many people put their pockets under their pillows, but even here they could be stolen. On 26 June 1773, Ann Grey testified at Old Bailey against Mary Stewart:
'I put 7 shillings 2 pence in halfpence and 3 shillings in silver, and put the pockets under the bolster with this money in them at night when I went to bed. The prisoner got up and took away my pockets. Atwood stopped her, at whose house I lodged, between seven and eight in the morning. When she came up stairs I claimed the pockets; the prisoner said they were her’s. I said they were mine; there were 10s. 2d. in the pockets.’
OBP, 26 June 1773, Mary, the wife of Charles Stewart (t17730626-45)
Sometimes the pockets were stolen when empty along with other items of dress. All clothing was liable to theft as it was expensive and could be easily pawned. Advertisements for stolen goods often appeared in newspapers.
The Public Advertiser, 17 January 1772:
'STOLEN from a gentleman’s house at Fulham: four small tablecloths and one large one marked P.D., seven shifts, two of them fine ones, the other coarser, six pairs of stockings, three worsted, one cotton and one thread; a large silver spoon (the crest a bugle-horn); a tea-spoon with the same crest, a cotton gown, two pair of pockets, three coloured aprons, several gloves, handkerchiefs, aprons, dresser-cloths, stockings, etc. two pairs of sheets marked P.D.
'If offered to be pawned or sold, stop them and the party and give notice to Sir John Fielding and you shall receive five guineas reward on conviction of the offenders.’
This image shows the safest place for a pocket and the unsafest place.
A pocketful of crime
The trial of James Dalton, a notorious thief, reveals the safest way to wear pockets. In the proceedings of the trial the accused confessed:
'He says, what gave them the greatest advantage, was the custom the women have of wearing their pockets under their hoop petticoats, where they might whip hold of it without the least interruption; whereas, says he, if to the contrary they would put their pockets between their hoops and their upper petticoats, they might defy all the Buzzes (thieves) in London to haul the cly (snatch pockets).’