What's in a Pocket?

Lucy Lockett lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it
Only ribbon round it
The best “pocket” history I know of on the web is on the V&A Museum’s site but pockets have been a topic on some 18th century roundtables lately, and I thought it would be nice to share a Rhode Island pocket (accession number 1985.1.9, found in collection).
Probably made between 1750 and 1775, this pocket was a child’s, judging by the size. It is 12 inches long, and 9 inches at the widest part, embroidered with silk on plain weave linen, with what may be some wool threads as well in the darker yellow-cream color. The embroidery is clearly crude and the pattern wiggly and hand-drawn by an unsophisticated hand, but the pattern is typical of the 18th century, with pointed leaf-tips that show the influence of Indian textile designs.
The back is pieced plain-weave linen coarser than the front, which is lined with the same plain-weave as the front. The slit is bound with a red-print calico much worn on the front, but with just enough detail remaining on the reverse to provide a tantalizing hint of the original fabric.
Pockets that hung on loops from petticoat ties, or were tied around the waist over petticoats and under gowns, were the 18th century woman’s version of pockets in some skirts and dresses and the purses or bags many women carry today. They could hold a wide assortment of items from sewing tools to snuff boxes, pocket books of money or pocket-sized prayer books.
Pockets could be plain or fancy (see this fantastic assemblage in Britain):  but they all served the same purpose of carrying items to free hands.
The first pocket I made was based on the example in the RIHS collections, though not embroidered. I threaded my petticoat ties through the loop, and wore the pocket under a gown. After wearing it to a few events, I cut off the loop and sewed the top to linen tape and tied it around my waist. The loop was simply too annoying: the pocket twisted under my gown, and I was left hiking up my gown trying to get into the pocket to find a bandage for  a friend’s cut finger. I’m never very poised, and I’m no fine lady in the 18th century, but the laughter of the soldiers in my own Regiment (though the bandage was for one of them!) was enough to fix my resolve upon solving my pocket woes.
I’ve included a PDF tracing of the  Pocket. Print it out without scaling, and then enlarge it 129% from letter to ledger size on a copy machine, and the embroidery will be full-scale for this pocket. The maker’s initials are included in cross stitch; we don’t know her name, but I think of her as Sarah Fairfax; the RIHS Registrar calls her Mrs. Ferrars. By the time of Jane Austen’s novels, women’s dresses were too slim in profile and too fine and light in fabric for pockets to be worn; reticules were carried instead.
~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections

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