Thinking the future through the past

A few months ago I listened to a talk by Barbara Burman on her research into long purses, often referred to as miser purses.

These purses date from mid 18th to late 19th century, often handmade as gifts to loved ones and although similar in shape were constructed from several techniques.

In painter James Collinson’s For Sale (c.1855-1860) you can see a young woman buying a purse at a bazaar.

The Empty Purse (replica of 'For Sale') ?c.1857 James Collinson 1825-1881 Presented anonymously 1917
The Empty Purse (replica of ‘For Sale’) ?c.1857 James Collinson 1825-1881 Presented anonymously 1917

The purse construction was netted, knitted or crocheted, with crochet being the more dominant technique. This was probably due to the July 1862 issue of Peterson’s Magazine stating that crochet was “the most durable style of work for purses.”


The purse was square at one end and round on the other, this helped owners locate the money quicker by distinguishing which end of the purse the right coin was in.

Two rings, or sliders, kept the coins at either end with a concealed slit in the center of the bag that could only allow removal of coins when one ring was moved to the other side.

The purses were often decorated with beads and made from fine silk thread, sometimes lined with silk to keep coins from wearing the outer fabric.

One beautiful thing about a handmade purse is it’s unique-ness. This became helpful in court when a stolen purse could be identified in court by the makers initials, or known mistake. Records from the old bailey describe occasions where men and women have been able to retrieve their belongings by describing not just the purse, but missed stitched or makers initials.

As time went on the size of the purse increased, partly due to new, larger coinage and partly due to the need to carry more items.

This purse is from an image from the December 1864 edition of Godey’s Lady’s book.


The larger purses at some point moved on and the purse, as was known then, seemed to be replaced by small bags.

This got me thinking about today’s purse. The amount of things I seem to need to carry grows with each week. My bus pass, coin purse, mobile, ipad, books, knitting, pens, knitting notions… the list goes on.

Once the small miser purse was just used for coins, then as people shopped it grew to hold packages, the handbags were formed. As time went on we added more and more ‘things’ we simply cannot do without, until today when we seem to be carrying round heavy backpacks full of items for every emergency.

What would happen if every evening I emptied my bag and permanently removed anything that hadn’t been used that day?

Some pens would go on day 1.

I could take some of the dozen discount cards from my purse, I don’t need so much wool. I also don’t need the extra scissors and sticky tape.

As each day passed, would I get to the point where I only had a handful of things, each being essential for my daily routine?

Where a paper diary and address book were once used we now have mobiles. These mobiles often come equipped with kindle apps, eliminating the need to carry a book. A sat-nav app, eliminates the need for an A-Z. Note taking, voice recording and drawing apps eliminate a lot of the uni equipment. What’s left?

My keys (although I only use one everyday, I carry six on a bunch), my cash card, bus/train passes, and coins.

I looked again at the miser purse and saw the two different sized ends perfect for todays world. The round edge perfect for coins and the square edge perfect for cards and phone.

As for the key, well, that’s going to take some thinking.


I decided to look at other modern purses to see what is already out there. It seems there has been a surge of ideas on the purse, in particular to mens purses/wallets.


I also want to look at ‘stash’ wallets, hidden ways to hide things.

Then I want to think about my misers purse, how to add a key, the pattern and construction, how small can I make it? How will I make or find the rings for the centre?


  1. large long purse –










Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

3 thoughts on “Thinking the future through the past

  1. It is interesting to see how purses vary through the times. I try to carry as small a purse as necessary as I often over fill them with useless items! It will be interesting to see the results of your research.


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