If you’ve spent any time on Youtube lately, then you’re probably aware of the massive community of online beauty gurus. One of the more popular types of videos that these gurus regularly post are “What’s in My Bag” videos.
Often sold as “girly” guilty pleasures, these videos are shockingly formulaic. They all start with a demonstration of the designer purse and the accompanying wallet. Next, they take apart the cosmetics bag, describing each item in detail. While doing so, the guru will crack jokes about how she is so girly and probably doesn’t need to be carrying around all of this makeup. There will often be a furtive and almost guilty joke about tampons or pads, sometimes including allusions to deodorizers. And the videos will conclude with a display of the guru’s smart phone, completed with adorable cover, earbuds, designer sunglasses, and her keys.
As a historian, I find myself fascinated by the performances of white feminine gender norms that are inherent to these videos. What do I mean by performance? Performance theory argues that ideas like gender and race are abstract concepts that serve as “scripts,” each particular to a time and place. In order to be recognized as belonging to a particular gender, race, class, etc, individuals try to follow these scripts as closely as possible. For example, think about how some girls are really smart but pretend not to be in order to be more socially acceptable or attractive to boys.
Expert Tip: Judith Butler is most famously associated with performance theory in history.
While watching these videos, I kept finding myself thinking about historical handbags, and what they would say about the lives of people who carried them. When most people think about historical sources, their minds go immediately to written documents. Material objects are another kind of source that historians can use. In many ways, these objects are the ultimate embodiment of Unwritten Histories, since not only do historians not often consider them but they also tell important stories about people who might not have left written documents. What’s more is that many of these material objects were personal items, things that were used on a daily basis, and so much a part of the landscape that they were seldom described in historical sources.
So in this new series on material history, “What’s in My ____?,” I will select a bag, container, or room, and use the material objects that would have appeared in these receptacles to provide an intimate look into the hidden lives of people in the past.
In this first post of the series, I will be looking at daytime purses used by upper class Anglophone women in Montreal in the 1890s. Today when we think of Montreal, we usually think of it as a French Canadian city. But in the late nineteenth century, the ruling class was distinctly white and Anglophone in character, made up of British and Scottish families that had made their fortunes in commerce. Some of the names that might be familiar to you include Redpath, McGill, and Molson. The ladies of these families were extremely fashionable. As was the case for most of North America, much of their fashion inspiration came directly from Europe, most notably Paris, made accessible through fashion plates (an illustration in a publication depicting a current style), magazines, and newspapers. This gown, worn by Mrs. R. S. Logan is typical of the kind of daytime wear that a well-to-do woman would have worn.
Expert Tip: There are not a huge number of sources that exist around this topic for Canada. This is mostly to do with the limited number of historians of Canada who are working at any given moment; so much remains to be done. However, there is a great deal of research about the lives of upper-class Victorian women in the United States and England. Since Canadian women relied upon these places for fashion inspiration, we can generally apply the information from other areas to Canada. This always needs to be done with a warning, however, since future research might prove that the Canadian experience was drastically different. It will be fun to find out! While much of the information comes from Britain or the US, all of the artifacts (except Lady Blanche) in this blog post are original to Montreal.
Accessories Make the Outfit
When leaving the house to go visiting or shopping, most ladies would have worn a small purse, otherwise known as a reticule. While earlier Victorian purses were made out of fabrics that were embroidered or beaded, by the 1870s, leather purses came into fashion. The type of purse that a woman selected was often dictated by the clothing they were wearing, which activity they wanted to partake in, the time of day, and even the season. While these bags were nearly always small, they contained compartments designed to hold specific items. 
This leather purse is typical of the kind of purses that an upper class woman would have worn out shopping, visiting, or traveling during the daytime in the late 19th century. It is made of a sturdy leather material with a metal buckle and frame. While today women tend to wear purses on their shoulders or hanging from their arms, this purse was designed to be worn at the belt, which is why there is a clip at the top. These purses were so popular in Montreal that by “the end of the 19th century, they were so highly prized that they appeared on the Christmas gift suggestion lists of a few big stores.”
Purses for upper class women served mainly as useful fashion accessories. They were small for this reason; they were not designed to be carry-alls, but to enable a woman to carry the personal effects she needed.
Hankies, Smelling Salts, and Calling Cards, Oh My!
So what did a purse like this hold? The first thing that no lady would be without would be a handkerchief. Handkerchiefs were simply squares of white or cream cotton, linen, or silk. Everyday handkerchiefs were generally plain cambric, perhaps with some simple embroidery, while those for evening excursions might be monogrammed, embroidered, or trimmed with lace. You can see how ubiquitous they were due to the fact that this adorable doll dressed to go shopping, named Lady Blanche Paulet, is carrying a lace handkerchief in her pocket. The cuteness is totally killing me.
Refined ladies would also likely have smelling salts in their purse. Images of Victorian women fainting and being revived by smelling salts are ubiquitous in this era. This bottle of Lavender Salts was manufactured by the Crown Perfumery Company, which warned shoppers to beware of “worthless imitations.” The salts would be emptied into a decorative case, often in silver or some other metal, such as the one shown here.
The final object that every upper-class woman would have carried was calling cards. Even Lady Blanche had her own calling cards (of course). These handwritten, stenciled, or printed cards contained the name of an individual and were used by both men and women. Like the smelling salts, these cards would have been placed into a special case, often made of silver or other fine materials.
Disciplined and Delicate
What can we learn from these items? Let’s start with the handkerchief. Such objects communicate the discipline and delicacy of a woman’s mind and body. First of all, “excessive bodily activity was forbidden;” yawning, sighing, spitting, scratching, coughing, and blowing one’s nose were not permitted, nor should any lady “examine their handkerchiefs after blowing their noses.”
So what did you do with with a handkerchief? Use it to hide any unsightly bodily activity: “If you wish to cough, or use your handkerchief, rise from the table, and leave the room. If you have not time to do this, cover your mouth, and turn your head aside from the table, and perform the disagreeable necessity as rapidly and quietly as possible.”
A similar image is conjured by the smelling salts — that of a delicate woman fainting at the slightest provocation. While today we think that Victorian women fainted due to tight corsets, in reality, most Victorian corsets were not worn tight enough to cause fainting in most cases.
So why did Victorian women faint? Two reasons: first, it was expected, and second, because it provided them with a source of power.
Victorian women were supposed to be delicate and passive. Consequently, as one scholar explains, “fainting was the physical manifestation of cultural imperatives and values that determined passivity – to the point of unconsciousness – as the epitome of an ideal femininity.” Victorian women therefore fainted because fainting was a visible demonstration of that the individual in question was indeed a lady.
But fainting could also be employed in a subversive manner. The Lady’s Companion; or Sketches of Life, Manners, and Morals, at the Present Day described fainting as “ ‘a pleasure – not a healthful one, certainly, but still a pleasure – to enjoy so much sympathy about one, to hear expressions of concern, pity and admiration.’ Fainting was a socially acceptable way for a Victorian women to make herself the centre of attention. A woman could use fainting as a way of drawing attention away from a rival, making a statement about a party, or to gain the attention of a particular individual. This last one is particularly important, due to the restrictive nature of courtship rituals of the period. Women in pursuit of a husband or a lover could use fainting as a way of indicating an interest or initiating a relationship. In a society where even engaged couples were not permitted to be alone together, the ability to literally fall into the arms of a man was a scandalous pleasure.
Finally, we must consider the calling cards. The exchange of calling cards was a very important ritual:
The language of calling cards was very complicated but understood quite clearly by those who used it. Calling cards were always left in person and most often by women. Wives paid calls without their husbands, so they would leave their husbands’ card where they visited. If the lady of the house being visited was home, the guest left two of her husband’s cards, one for the lady visited and one for her husband. If the lady she intended to visit was not home, a woman left three cards: one of her own and two of her husband’s; however, only her card would be left for the lady of the house.
This is just a brief summary of how calling cards worked, although you can go here to find out more. Again, they conjure up images of refined women visiting each other and talking about the weather. However, some Victorian women could wield a great deal of power through these calling cards. Just think about fictional characters like Mad Men’s Betty Draper or many political wives in the present; the formal and informal gatherings organized or hosted by wives were essential to the success of a man’s career. His wife’s ability to manage such events and be seen as a gracious hostess was extremely important.
So what’s not here? Pretty much anything to do with grooming was not part of an upper class lady’s handbag. Upper-class Victorian women relied on lady’s maids to wash and dress them, do their hair, and apply makeup (if any). No lady would have left the house unless she was impeccably turned out, so there was no real need to carry any grooming tools, like brushes, combs, or mirrors. These would be left at home, on the dressing table. After all, “Pray arrange your dress before you leave the house! Nothing looks worse than to see a lady fussing over her dress in the street. Take a few moments more in your dressing-room, and so arrange your dress that you will not need to think of it again whilst you are out.”
Expert Tip: The Victorians generally frowned on the idea of makeup, considering it unladylike, deceptive, and morally reprehensible. It does seem as though some women used some cosmetics, perhaps powder and a touch of rouge, but this was likely restricted to the evenings and/or older women. Light floral perfumes were generally permitted, and many women applied perfume to their handkerchiefs.
Also missing would be fans and house keys. The use of fans was largely restricted to evening events, mostly balls. There was no need for ladies to carry anything so mundane as a key to get into the house. That’s what servants were for. 😉
One object that I have not listed is cash. This is because it isn’t entirely clear whether Victorian women would have carried cash with them, or whether they would simply have made most purchases “on account.” If they did carry cash, it was likely only a very small amount.
The Great Business of Woman’s Life: Shopping
The act of shopping is in and of itself important. Then, as now, shopping was sometimes derided as a silly activity, wasteful and extravagant. It was also a performance of gender and class, where you could “see and be seen,” as it were, and evaluated on your manners and gentility.
Victorian women would be scrutinized the moment they left the house. Things Victorian ladies never did, according to one guide, included:
- appear in public without gloves
- walk too quickly
- walk ungracefully
- carry your head too high or look too low
- turn your head to the right or the left
- look back (“it is excessively ill-bred.”)
- have bad posture, but not extremely straight posture (you are not in the military!)
- swing your arms
- raise your hems above the ankle, even if it is raining.
- hold your parasol too low or too high
- stop speak to anyone in the street (they should walk with you instead)
- talk or laugh loudly (it’s vulgar)
- look in the windows of a shop 
There were more rules once inside a shop as well:
“Politeness is very essential to the right transaction of that great business of woman’s life, shopping. The variety afforded by the shops of a city renders people difficult to please; and the latitude they take in examining and asking the price of goods, which they have no thought of buying, is so trying to the patience of those who attend upon them, that nothing but the most perfect courtesy of demeanor can reconcile them to it.”
So what can we conclude about the lives of upper-class Victorian women from their daytime purses? Yes, their lives could be seen as luxurious, fashionable, and beautiful. But while it might seem that way on the surface, there was more at work here. Appearance, both physically and figuratively, was extremely important. The rules that governed the lives of upper-class Victorian women were very strict, requiring their behavior and bodies to be rigidly under control. Some deviation was acceptable, so long as it conformed to Victorian ideals of womanhood. Some women were able to use these rules to wield some power over their own lives, and to a certain extent, over their families. However, all of this came at the expense of an army of invisible domestic servants who were responsible for the bulk of the work.
Isn’t it amazing what you can learn from a woman’s purse? Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that these are generalizations. No two women lived exactly the same lives, and their experiences could vary wildly. But we can learn about the broad strokes as well as the social norms that governed their lives. By paying attention to what is and what is not present, material history can offer enormous insights in people’s unwritten histories.
So what’s in my bag? Old receipts, random pieces of paper, two kinds of lip balm, a lipstick, hand lotion, hand sanitizer, a brush, a nail file, a mirror, a powder compact that probably should have been thrown out a while ago, assorted plastic cards (no cash, bad millennial), an umbrella, a fan, and some hankies. Oh, and my phone, tangled earbuds, and keys when I’m out. What does that say about me, I wonder? 😉
Do you have any experience doing material history? What have you learned? Any suggestions for future posts in this series? Let me know in the comments below!
Before E-Commerse: A History of Canadian Mail-Order Catalogues, Canadian Museum of History,
Donica Belisle. “Crazy for Bargains: Inventing the Irrational Female Shopper in Modernizing English Canada.” The Canadian Historical Review 92, no. 4 (2011): 581-606.
Kathleen Campbell, “A Brief History of the Purse up to 1930,” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Global Perspectives, edited by Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G. Tortora (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010).
“Outerwear and Accessories,” An Online Exhibition of Canadian Dress: The Confederation Era, 1840-1890, Canadian Museum of History.
Alexandra Palmer, Fashion: A Canadian Perspective (Toronto, Ont: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
Straightlaced: Restrictions on Women Web Tour, McCord Museum.
 Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross and Cynthia Cooper, with adaptation by Karine Rousseau, “Introduction,” Form and Fashion Web Tour, McCord Museum, http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/webtours/VQ_P2_17_EN .
 Valerie Cumming, “Accessories,” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: West Europe, edited by Lise Skov (Oxford: Berg Publisher Berg Publisher, 2010), , 396–406.
 Valerie Cumming, C. W. Cunnington, and P. E. Cunnington, “Handkerchief,” in The Dictionary of Fashion History (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010), 99.
 Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 97.
 Florence Hartley, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness (Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1860), 108. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35123/35123-h/35123-h.htm
 Leigh Summers, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001), 121–142.
 Summers, 121–142.
 Ariel Beaujot, Victorian Fashion Accessories (London: Berg Publishers, 2012), 139-178
 Hartley, 110-111.
 Katia Johansen, “Perfumed Dress and Textiles,” in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Global Perspectives, eds. Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G. Tortora. (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010), 47–51.
 Hartley, 110-115.
 Hartley, 302.