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by Brenda S. Cox

“Here, sir,” taking out his pocket book, “if you will do me the favor of casting your eye over these advertisements which I cut out myself . . .”—Mr. Parker in Sanditon

What did ladies carry in those beautiful little reticules? In Part 1 we looked at some of the items that author Candice Hern has collected. We began with the necessary items: a fan, a vinaigrette, and a coin purse. Then we added some optional items: a perfume étui (a little container for a perfume bottle) and a cosmetics case. What else might ladies have carried in their reticules?

Books

Candice says they carried books in their reticules! That sounds right up my alley. I often carry a book or my Kindle in my purse. But these were very specific kinds of books, made very small to fit in the reticule. Candice showed us two types, pocket books and almanacs.

Pocket Books

The pocket book, perhaps like Mr. Parker’s, was the Regency version of a Day-Timer®. It was about 3” by 5”, usually covered with leather. A foldover flap kept it closed in the reticule. Many publishers produced these, so apparently they were a popular item.

Each began with a title page and a foldout fashion plate. Most pages showed a week’s calendar on one page, opposite a page to list expenses for that week. The lady might list items she bought, losses at cards, and gifts to poor people. A tiny pencil would probably accompany the pocketbook.

Pocket books also included short stories, essays, poetry, and even games. I hope these ladies had good eyes!

This English Ladies Pocket Book was published in Birmingham in 1803. The foldout shows ladies in some interesting bonnets. The book also includes calendar pages, expense pages, and things to read.

Almanacks

Another book that might be in a ladies’ reticule was a miniature almanac (or, as they would have written it, almanack). These were published yearly from 1690 to 1885. You could buy them at stationers’ shops and give them as Christmas gifts. Or, your dressmaker or milliner might give you one if you were a regular customer, as companies today might give out calendars.

These almanacs were either 1 1/8” square, or 1 1/8” by 2 ¼”. They included pictures; calendars showing holidays, phases of the moon, etc.; lists of the Kings and Queens of England and the Lord Mayors and Sheriffs of London; and information about coins and currency.

By the way, do you know why phases of the moon were important? Most evening visiting was done when the moon was full, so there was enough light to travel in your carriage by night. For example, in Sense and Sensibility when Sir John Middleton wants to invite a lot of people over, he wasn’t able to because “it was moonlight and every body was full of engagements.” So the phases of the moon were part of people’s social planning.

This miniature almanac from 1788 shows phases of the moon, dates of holidays, the church calendar, and dates for terms at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

The tiny almanac came in a lovely case of tooled and gilded leather, to protect it in the reticule.

What else might have been in a ladies’ reticule?

A few years ago I had the privilege of attending the first few days of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Way up in Upper Camden Place, near where the Elliots lived in Persuasion, Jane Tapley gave a fascinating talk called “Rummaging Through the Reticule.” She added many more ideas on what might have been in the reticule. Of course reticules were not just carried to parties and visits. They were also used for travel; perhaps they had larger ones for that purpose. Besides some of the items Candice showed, Jane Tapley suggested that the reticule might have included:

  • dressy shoes (silk, satin, or starched cotton), so they wouldn’t get dirty or scuffed on the way to and from the party
  • ostrich feather for your hat (so it didn’t blow away on the way)
  • a small chamber pot if the lady was traveling; they would use it in a coach under their skirts, then dump it through a trap door in the bottom of the coach! Or they might bring one going out to dinner. It could also be carried in your muff. It would have been about the size and shape of a gravy boat.
  • cutlery (silver or wood), including a spoon, probably silver, to be used all during your lifetime
  • a cup, fork, corkscrew, and a little pot for mustard, salt, or pepper, all in a small set for traveling or visits
  • traveling drinking cup made of horn or silver

When traveling, a lady might carry her own cutlery and even salt. Items from Jane Tapley’s collection, photo by Brenda S. Cox

  • a small case (or étui) specifically for sewing. It might include a needle case, scissors case, ivory bobbin winder, silver thimble, ivory pincushion, and a little penknife for cutting thread, plus a box of colored beads and a fine needle for beading. A small sewing kit might be called a huswife or a housewife.
  • little lead pencils or a writing set
  • a tiny book like The Merchant of Venice
  • a silhouette of your sweetheart

Little books were made small enough to carry in the reticule. A silhouette was a way to carry a picture with you. (Items from Jane Tapley’s collection, photo by Brenda S. Cox)

  • glasses or magnifying glasses
  • lorgnettes (folding glasses on a string, worn on a chain around the neck)

Glasses, embroidered handkerchiefs, and sewing supplies might also come in handy in your reticule. (Items from Jane Tapley’s collection, photo by Brenda S. Cox)

  • a half sovereign case that carried two half-sovereigns
  • potpourri or pomanders to keep away body odors
  • handkerchiefs with fine embroidery
  • invitations

Now, imagine that you’re going with Jane Austen to an evening party. What will you carry in your reticule, out of these many options? Or, if you’re traveling with her to another town, what would you carry then?

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To see more of her lovely collections, go to her Regency Collections.

 

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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