Friday 25 October 2019

Book review: The Pocket: a hidden history of women's lives 1660-1900

The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660–1900 by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux. Yale University Press, 2019, £35.  ISBN  9780300239072, 264 pages, 200 colour illustrations.
Back in 2006 Barbara Burman and Seth Denbo published a little 40 page pamphlet entitled Pockets of History: the secret life of an everyday object, this was to accompany an exhibition at the Bath Museum, and was the result of a research project which examined 300 surviving pockets. The online resource resulting from that project is still available at This book starts with the work done then and expands it. 

This book by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux looks beyond the object itself to who owned pockets, what they put in them, and how they regarded them. They have gathered information given in trials, mainly at the Old Bailey for the theft of pockets, in letters, diaries, and wide range of other written sources. As well as photographs of originals, there are satirical prints, and paintings of pockets being worn, and the array of items they contained. 

In the chapter “work’d pockets to my intire satisfaction” the authors examine who made pockets, what materials they used, and how they decorated them. Several other chapters examine what was kept in the pockets, and how they might reflect the owner’s interests and work. Examples of this  include Dorothy Wordsworth who loved to go on “botanical walks” and in 1800 purchased two botanical pocket microscopes, while lower down the social scale a farmer’s wife who traded in cheese and butter at Bristol market was knocked from her horse in 1736 and her pocket containing the 9s 8d she had earned was cut off. 

The book is full of tit bits, and has pages and pages of references at the back for those who would like to explore further.

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