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What's in a Pocket?

Lucy Locket
lost her pocket,

Kitty Fisher found it.
Not a bit of money in it,
Only 'broidery round it.



When Lucy Locket lost her pocket, it was a garment separate from her other clothes, worn tied around her waist under her outermost layers. Women began to wear pockets such as these, as opposed to pouches or bags hanging outside their clothes, during the late seventeenth century. Separate pockets continued to be worn into the mid nineteenth century, when women's dresses began to be made with sewn-in pockets as they are today.

A woman's pocket was the place she kept handy the items she used regularly, such as her spectacles and handkerchief, keys, money, sewing tools, or knitting. It was also her most private storage space, for some women perhaps the only private space they had, so a pocket might contain more intimate objects such as personal letters.

Museum collections of decorative arts, such as the SPNEA collection, often contain a variety of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century pockets, some beautifully decorated with embroidery, needlepoint, appliqué, or patchwork. Pockets were most likely not intended to be seen when worn, and most pockets were probably plain fabric. The decorated ones represent an attempt on the part of women to beautify their everyday lives. Pockets were also given as gifts. Decorated pockets are more likely to have survived than plain ones, as they would have been saved for sentimental reasons.

While many pockets, plain and ornamented, survive in museum collections, it is difficult to know precisely how they were worn. The pocket was so symbolic of a woman's privacy that whenever one appears in a painting or print, its appearance has to be read more in terms of its symbolic value than its actual use. Most period illustrations that show a woman's pocket depict the woman engaged in behavior that is suggestive of either eroticism or business activities or both.

Pockets thus represent the kind of dilemma that objects of material culture can present to scholars. Much is known about how and when these items were made, but evidence of how they were used remains fragmentary and tantalizing. From objects of the most mundane function to articles of highest symbolic value representing how society saw women and how women saw themselves, pockets were and continue to be powerful images of womanhood in early America.

-Sharon Ann Burnston


Top Left: The size and shape of pockets have befuddled many people in the past. When this pocket was donated to SPNEA in 1942, it was described as a pear-shaped linen shoe bag. Shown here with an eighteenth-century handkerchief, coins and pair of spectacles, it more clearly reveals its function. Below: This pocket from Dover, New Hampshire, was embroidered with the initials "HB," a practice in keeping with the marking of other undergarments and household linens with the owner's initials. It holds an enameleed memorandum book.



Left: Although most early pockets were plain, like the linen dimity one on the left, the fancier versions were more likely to have been saved. The pocket on the right is made of a patterned linen/wool textile called "tobine." Right: "Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease," mezzotint after John Collet, London c.1770. Reproduced with permission of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. This print of a fashionable woman being assisted into her tight corset, or stays, clearly depicts her underwear-shift, stays, fringed underpetticoat, and pocket. Erotic overtones are suggested by the bedroom setting, her posture and expression, and the display of her pocket, an item of clothing not intended to be seen in public.

What's in a Pocket?