The term “purse” originally referred to a small bag for holding coins. In British English, it is still used to refer to a small coin bag. A “handbag” is a larger accessory that holds objects beyond currency, such as a woman’s personal items. American English typically uses the terms purse and handbag interchangeably. The term handbag began appearing in the early 1900s. Initially, it was most often used to refer to men’s hand-luggage. Women’s bags grew larger and more complex during this period, and the term was attached to the women’s accessory. Handbags are valued for their stylishness as visual accessories as well as for their function.
The verb to “handbag” derives from UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s habit of pulling scraps of paper out of her handbag in meetings and reading aloud the comments she had written on them. The verb’s more general meaning of “treating ruthlessly” came to symbolise Thatcher’s whole style of government. Julian Critchley, one of her biggestTory backbench critics, once said, “Margaret Thatcher and her handbag is the same as Winston Churchill and his cigar.”
Early modern Europeans wore purses for one sole purpose: to carry coins. Purses were made of soft fabric or leather and were worn by men as often as ladies; the Scottish is a survival of this custom. In the 17th century, young girls were taught embroidery as a necessary skill for marriage; this also helped them make very beautiful handbags. By the late 18th century, fashions in Europe were moving towards a slender shape for these accessories, inspired by the silhouettes of Ancient Greece and Rome. Women wanted purses that would not be bulky or untidy in appearance, so reticules were designed. Reticules were made of fine fabrics like silk and velvet, carried with wrist straps. First becoming popular in France, they crossed over into Britain, where they became known as “indispensables.”Men, however, did not adopt the trend. They used purses and pockets, which became popular in men’s trousers.
The modern purse, clutch, pouch or handbag came about in England during the Industrial Revolution, in part due to the increase in travel by railway. In 1841 the Doncaster industrialist and confectionery entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson (of butterscotch fame) ordered a set of travelling cases and trunks and insisted on a travelling case or bag for his wife’s particulars after noticing that her purse was too small and made from material that would not withstand the journey. He stipulated that he wanted various handbags for his wife, varying in size for different occasions and asked that they be made from the same leather that was being used for his cases and trunks to distinguish them from the then-familiar carpetbag and other travelers’ cloth bags used by members of the popular classes. H. J. Cave (London) obliged and produced the first modern set of luxury handbags, as we would recognize them today, including a clutch and a tote (named as ‘ladies travelling case’). These are now on display in the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam. H. J. Cave did continue to sell and advertise the handbags, but many critics said that women did not need them and that bags of such size and heavy material would ‘break the backs of ladies.’ H. J. Cave ceased to promote the bags after 1865, concentrating on trunks instead, although they continued to make the odd handbag for royalty, celebrities or to celebrate special occasions, the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee being the most recent. However, H.J. Cave resumed handbag production in 2010.