Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Purses in the Early Modern

 


Fig.1 The Calthorpe Purse 1540. V&A
Look at probate inventories from the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century and one of the most common entries you will see is his/her apparel and money in his/her purse, for example from 1610 a poor almsman has “his purse, his apperrell 2s,” while a wealthy mariner in 1667 has “all the deceaseds wearing apparell & monie in purse £360.”  By the second half of the 17th century the purse hasn’t disappeared, but a new statement is money in his/her pocket. In 1674 a silkweaver has “clothes and money in his pockett £2 6s 8d” and in 1703 a widow has for “her weiring clothes and for her money in her pocket £5”

Sadly, probate inventories tell us very little about what purses looked like or were made from. It would appear that many were worn with, or attached to a girdle, in 1611 Jane Byas, has “her purse, girdle, kaes knife and her apparel.” 

Fig 2 Callot Woman spinning
This pairing of a purse with knives, both of which could be suspended from the waist appears in other inventories and wills, and in the drawing (figure 2) by Jacques Callot (c. 1592 – 1635) of a woman spinning, hanging from her waist are her purse, knives and keys. In 1637 Anne Abry, a widow leaves in her will “To my god daughter Mary Lance my purse, pin case and a pair of knives.” If you had money you might have several purses, in 1634 Elizabeth Hart, widow of a gentleman, leaves, “to my grandchild Elizabeth Growse all my unbequeathed rings and jewels immediately after my decease, and my best purse will all things in it at my decease.”   

                                                      

Embroidered purses

There are many survivals of embroidered purses, and the Calthorpe Purse of c.1540 (Fig. 1), in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is one of the best known. It was probably made for the marriage of Sir Henry Parker to Elizabeth Calthorpe of Suffolk, as it shows the arms of the two families. It is of extremely fine canvas work, 1,250 silk stitches per square inch (194 per square centimetre).  

Fig. 3 Beadwork purse 1634, V&A

Many of these embroidered purses date from the first quarter of the seventeenth century, and occasionally they appear in wills or probates. In 1604 Elizabeth Jenyson, who was the widow of Auditor General of Ireland, gave in her will “to my cosen Wyngate's wief a purse wrought with needlework.” In 1641 Roger Widdrington, esquire, in a long and contested inventory, his goods were worth £1446, his debts were £6620, owned “two wrought purses with gold and silver.” As well as canvas work and embroidery some survivals are done in beadwork, again in the Victoria and Albert Museum this purse, (Figure 3), is dated 1634 and has the motto “I PRAY GOD TO B MY GUIDE” These purses could be valuable, in 1643 Paul Williams had stolen from him “four purses wrought with gold and silver worth forty shillings.”              

Some purses might have been professionally made, but young girls and women could embroider their own, in 1650 the daughters of Edward Harpur had purchased for them “a quarter and two of canvas for a sampler and a purse 11d,” and when you had made them you would pay for them to be made up, the Howard family in 1618 paid 13s 4d for making up two purses. On other occasions the accounts also have “trimming a purse for my lady 2s”

Fabric purses

As well as needlework, purses could be of fabric. A 1582 letter, quoted in Cunnington says, “I have a pair of worsted stockens, the legs of them I pray you to get me a purse, a large one, made of them with a lock ring. I would have the fringe that shall go about it to be of silk.” In 1631 Frances Jodrell had “in a flatt boxe...a paire of network sleeves, a greene scarfe with gold fringe...a black wrought hancarchieffe..a little purse of velvet, another ould sattin purse wrought, a little sivet purse...”

Fig. 4. The Gunnister Purse, NMS

Purses could be knitted, possibly the best known is in the National Museums Scotland, the Gunnister Purse, found in a Shetland burial, it contained late 17th century coins. (Figure 4 Image © National Museums Scotland)    

Leather purses

Most purses were leather, and these could be much cheaper than the fabric or embroidered purses. The Howard family paid in 1628 for “a leather purse 4d,” while in 1605 “a leather purse worth two pence” was stolen from Henry Gates in London.  They could even cheaper than these, in 1636 James Evans had in stock “2 doz. of litle leatherne purses 1s 6d”, which works out at three farthings each. Leather purses rarely survive except in archaeological contexts. A leather purse, possibly 16th century, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is quite complex, it has a metal clasp at the top, but underneath are two other compartments. (Figure 5) 

Fig. 5. Leather purse, Met Museum

Fastenings

Most of the survivals looked at so far have been closed with a drawstring, but a variety of metal clasps as in the Metropolitan Museum example could be used. Rowlands in 1616 refers to “A leather pouch with a snap-hance shut,” and there are examples of this type of closure in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Museum of London and other museums have survivals of various styles of metalwork purse frames, without the fabric or leather, which has rotted away.  

Making and selling

Who sold the purses? In 1611 Henry Lockwood, a glover, had “Att the shop in ye town: ... on dussen of gloves 4s, ...for pursses and poynts 1s 6d,” while another glover in 1631, Nichodemus White, had “4 dozen and 4 purses and one silke purse 10s” In 1628  Margaret Day, the widow of a glover who was obviously still running her late husband’s business, had in stock “twelve dozen and nine purses of farthing ware.”  These glovers were obviously also making purses as well as gloves, and gloves also appear in the shop accounts of whittawers, whose who dealt in white leather. Chapmen also carried then amongst their goods, in 1642 William Mackwell had “3 purses at 1s 6d per peece” and a further 10 purses for the same price in his stock, while in 1628 John Uttinge had 6 small purses at 1d each and 2 silk purses at 5d each.  In 1679 Henry Mitchell,  a haberdasher, had purses in stock at 1s each, while in 1702 James Osburne, a linen draper lists purses and girdles in his stock.  

Further reading

There is a detailed examination with patterns, of a matching embroidered purse, pincushion and knife case of 1600-25 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, by Claire Thornton in Susan North and Jenny Tiramani (eds) Seventeenth century women’s dress patterns, book 2. (V&A Publishing, 2012, ISBN 978 1 851776856)

For those interested in embroidered purses, Jacqui Carey,  Sweet Bags: An Investigation into 16th and 17th Century Needlework. (Carey Company, 2009, ISBN 09523225 7 9)

A good source for anyone looking for further information on leather purses is the book by Olaf Goubitz, Purses in Pieces: Archaeological Finds of Late Medieval and 16th-Century Leather Purses, Pouches, Bags and Cases in the Netherlands: archaeological ... puches, bags and cases in the Netherlands (Stichting Promotie Archeologie, 2009, ISBN 978-9089320148)

                         

 

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