I have been knitting pockets. I am designing something which requires a pocket of a certain kind and I spent most of yesterday testing out several. By mid-afternoon, after creating a curious sampler composed of several different kinds of mini-pocket, I had a mild eureka moment, and devised what I reckon is the the perfect pocket for the garment I have in mind. It was a pleasant sort of day – I am generally fond of figuring out a knitterly conundrum – and I particularly like combining the activities of thinking with one’s hand and brain. While I was making my pockets, I was thinking about pockets, too.

The pockets below, worn as part of the gala costume of these Musselburgh fishwives, have intrigued me since I saw them.

© East Lothian Library Services

They are very like the pockets worn by women of all classes in the Eighteenth Century. Such tie-on pockets could be highly decorative — miniature canvases upon which women of middle or upper rank might practice their needlework skills, such as this beautiful example from around 1720, by talented needlewoman, Hannah Haines.

© V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum

. . .or they could be plain workaday accessories, like this wonderful well-worn pocket, which turned up at the National Museum of Scotland with intact contents of a thread box, pincushion, pair of scissors and fleerish (firelighter).

© National Museums of Scotland

Pockets might be pieced . . .

© Royal School of Needlework

. . . appliquéd . . .

© Worthing Museum and Art Gallery

. . . made of woollen cloth . . .

© National Museum of Wales

. . . or even knitted.

© Leeds Museums and Art Galleries
(this interesting example is knitted from cotton in a durable basket stitch).

Worn, as they were, beneath the skirts — the repositories of letters, trinkets, secrets — pockets became a simple metaphor for a woman’s privacy and virtue. Haughty Meg, seen here in this illustration of Burns’ Song, is keeping hold of her pocket despite Duncan’s entreaties (you can see it beneath her white gown).

David Wilkie, The Refusal (1814) © Victoria and Albert Museum

And in Gillray’s cartoon, the picking of the Bank of England’s pocket makes Pitt’s plundering of Britain’s gold reserves deeply sinister and suggestive.

James Gillray, Political Ravishment, or, The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger (1797)

Like other working women, who needed quick access to cash or tools, eighteenth-century fishwives wore their pockets on the outside. . .

Mackerel seller from Paul Sandby’s Cries of London, 1760. © Guildhall Library.

. . . where they were vulnerable to theft. Old Bailey trials are full of fishwives whose pockets were pinched. But who would dare pick the pockets of Rowlandson’s formidable cod-carriers?

Thomas Rowlandson, Procession of the Cod Company from St Giles to Billingsgate (1810)

The differences in representation between the fishwives of Billingsgate and those of Newhaven interest me greatly. London fishwives are almost always stereotypically loud, rambunctious, filthy. But those of Newhaven and the Forth are represented as formidable in quite a different way — their physical strength is bound up with their virtue, and a beauty that seems exotic and Amazonian. . . or even Spartan. Perhaps Sir Walter Scott is to blame. He usually is. I think that this is my favourite of all the Hill and Adamson callotypes of the women of Newhaven.

Robert Adamson and Octavius Hill, Newhaven Fishwives (1843)

While, by the end of the Nineteenth Century, fashionable women had abandoned the tie-on pocket in favour of the handbag, working women continued to wear them. Some pockets evolved to more closely resemble money belts, such as this one worn by an Arbroath fishwife in a posed studio portrait.

According to Barbara Burman and Seth Denbo (to whom this discussion is indebted) “in living memory, working women who continued to make and use the old form were often in the fish trade”, which brings me full circle to the Musselburgh lasses at the top of this post. Rather than being anachronistic (as I confess I’d originally thought) their tie-on pockets are perhaps one of the last examples of a continuously-worn functional accessory that was once an integral part of the dress of every woman.

I have come a long way from my knitted pocket sampler. l shall save it for another time. But if you want to read more about pockets I highly recommend getting lost in the marvelous archive that is the result of Burman and Denbo’s research (the source of many of the images in this post). There are also some lovely examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American pockets in Linda Baumgarten’s What Clothes Reveal