Thursday, November 14, 2013


For years my family members were historical re-enactors of the FurTrade Era.  Which is basically pre-1840 US history although we did some  French and Indian War re-enactments as well.  

When doing these we dressed and lived as in those times.  As a historical clothier I could write volumes on the various garments on construction, the ease of making them and the multipurpose use of the clothes.  But today’s missive is about the lowly pocket and its usage not only as a handy catch all in women’s clothing but as a powerful silent language.

First of all let’s start with the pocket itself. We are all familiar with the pockets in modern clothing, but during the early years they were not sewn in as they are now.  Fabric was hard to come by and expensive.  Even the coarse homespun and felted wools worn by the people were labor intensive to make.  So pockets were transferable from one garment to another.

Today I’m only talking about the pockets used by the ladies.  A bit of history here, during this time frame the women could not own property, often were not allowed to handle money, and were basically uneducated.  Dowries were still the vogue.  A woman’s skills were often her biggest “selling value” as she became of age to marry. 
There were very few honorable ways a woman could earn money to turn over to her husband, father, uncle or other male figure in her life.  The money she earned was not hers to keep. Sewing was one of those ways.

I tell you this so you will understand more of the language of the pocket and in another post I’ll talk about the chatelaine which also figured into this silent language of a woman’s worth. 

The pockets were generally a tear drop shaped pouch that had a casing for a ribbon or sash to go through the top of it to secure it around the waist of the wearer.  

The pocket was worn, except for two time periods in her life, under the woman’s skirt, aka: petticoat, and was accessed through a slit in the side of the skirt.

For the most part the pocket was generally plain and unadorned except during those two time periods I previously mentioned.  Then it became very elaborate and well decorated because it was going to become a form of advertisement of the wearer’s skills. 

Remember me saying a woman’s skills were how her worth as a future wife were evaluated.  Well one of those skills that was much in demand was sewing.  While the sewing machine  did come into existence in the mid 1700’s it did not start appearing in households until over a century later. Even then it was often only the wealthy that could afford them and most machines in the beginning did a chain stitch that unraveled with a single pull of the thread.  Much like what is on feed sacks today. So they were used more for items that would not require a lot of day to day wear and strain.

Therefore, being a good seamstress was a valuable marketable skill for centuries.  The pocket became a billboard of the woman’s abilities and was often labored over for long periods of time to make them just perfect before appearing on the outside of the skirt.
The first time they appeared was when the head male of the household decided it was time the young lady should be married off.  She would be told “Girl it is time to make your pocket.”  

She would then, if she was anxious to be married, work hard on designing her pocket and sewing it with the tiniest of stitches and decorate it with elaborate embroidery showing off all the decorative stitches she knew how to do.  

Often she had either grown and harvested the flax or cotton herself, or sheared the sheep and then wove it into the fabric for the pocket and the sash to hold it to show her additional house wife skills.  

Once the elaborate pocket was made it was saved for when suitable suitors would be around.  Perhaps at a church social.  

They would attend such gatherings carrying a food item the young woman had made to show off her cooking skills and her pocket proudly displayed on the outside of her petticoat. 

The petticoat and bodice would also be the best she had to show her “wealth” and sewing skills.  They would of course be a clean as possible to show she was a good house keeper as well.

The pocket basically told all suitors, young and old alike, that Papa said it was time she be married.

The second time in her life she might wear her pocket on the outside of her petticoats was to advertise that she was a professional seamstress and was allowed by the males in her life to take in sewing to earn money for the household.

There is an old nursery rhyme from the 1700’s called Lucy Locket. 
            LUCY LOCKET
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it.
 Not a penny was there in it,
Just a ribbon round it. 

As a child I could not figure out how in the world someone could lose a pocket, but after making several myself for sale over the years it became very clear to me. 
What I did not know for the longest time was the poem actually referred to another, not so honorable way women were often forced to earn a living.

According to various web sites Lucy Locket was a barmaid at the Cock Public House in London England during the early 1700’s , who did more than serve ale. 
Kitty Fisher was Catherine Maria Fisher (died 1757) who was an infamous courtesan who stepped above the working class girl into society with servants of her own.
The implication being that while both women plied the same trade, Kitty was far wealthier than Lucy because of her great beauty.

Jan who hopes you enjoyed this bit of history on one of many silent languages in OK