In 1841, English confectionery entrepreneur, Samuel Parkinson, came home to his wife and said “Darling – today I invented the handbag for you.” Well, maybe not those exact words, however this may just be one of the greatest gestures ever made from a husband to a wife. It’s curious that not all women of the era were as appreciative as Mrs Parkinson (or indeed we hope she was!).
Parkinson and his wife often travelled by train and when he noticed his wife’s purse was too small and delicate to handle all her belongings, he ordered her a set of smaller luggage. These were mainly travelling cases and trunks, but reportedly also included a handbag similar to the shape we still use today. He insisted the bags were made from the same leather that was being used for his cases, as he did not wish them to be made from cloth or carpet that were often used by travellers in lower class train compartments.
The manufacturer of these bags was a company called H.J. Cave and they took the idea and continued to manufacture and market handbags for ladies. However, after 15 years pushing this new product, they ceased production due to lack of demand. Handbags were deemed too heavy for ladies who really didn’t need them anyway. There were a few manufacturers who made bespoke luggage and continued to explore the possibilities of handbags for women including Tanner Krolle, which today sells bespoke handbags for which you can select your own internal configuration. But it took almost 100 years for the handbag to become a popular and staple item in women’s wardrobes.
Today it seems impossible to imagine life without a handbag. However the history of the handbag is closely linked to the emancipation of women. Women of means in the 18th and 19th centuries were largely stay-at-home types. She had servants to carry her belongings and had little need to carry anything herself other than small items of value that she preferred to keep on her person. She had tiny purses and sometimes pockets hidden in her billowing skirts. A wife’s property was also deemed as being owned by her husband, so she actually had few belongings that could be considered her own.
This began to change early last century and many fashion and luggage designers picked-up on this new opportunity. Coco Channel was one of the first expert marketers of handbags and her 2.55 bag (sometimes referred to as the flap bag), was first launched in 1929. It was designed to free up hands by adding a shoulder strap, inspired by the straps found on a soldier’s bag. The major luggage manufacturers followed with Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior all launching handbags in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Over the decades the handbag continued to be a source of controversy. Dior’s 1947 collection emphasised small waists, long skirts and tiny handbags, touted as a return to femininity. Some claim the small size of the handbag was a deliberate message about women needing to be less emancipated and head back into the kitchen after the war.
So next time you want to buy a new handbag, especially if it’s a classic shape like the Hermès Kelly Bag or the Channel 2.55, you can put it down to a celebration of equality. And we can never have too much of that!