Notes on collections and events at the RIHS
Pocketbooks, quite literally a book shaped object with a pocket (or two or more), from the 17th through 19th centuries are not your grandmother’s purse. My grandmother’s purse was black leather with a gold toned metal clasp and short black leather handles. It contained all sorts of goodies: cross stitch in process, Andes Candies, tissues (in case the one in her sleeve wasn’t enough) and sometimes pilfered Sweet and Low packets. I once saw her tuck a left-over baked potato into her purse at Newport Creamery, wrapped in tinfoil which she kept folded up in her purse.
This pocketbook (or wallet), made in Rhode Island around 1775-1800, was used by Judge Robert Hellen and is part of our wonderful textile collection. While not made to carry baked potatoes it was ideal for carrying paper currency, letter, bills, receipts, and other documents and the perfect size for slipping into thin pockets in waistcoats and jackets. Embroidered and sewn for gentlemen by the women of their household, pocketbooks became symbols of social standing (not unlike designer accessories in today’s fashions). Easy to show off in the marketplace and at social occasions, embroidered pocketbooks were visual clues that the women of his household were so well provided for that they could spend hours becoming accomplished at sewing and embroidery.
This lovely example is stitched on the exterior with worsted wool yarn depicting flowers and foliage of bright pink, blue, green, yellow and natural. In the center of the front of the pocketbook is the owner’s monogram in script “R H”. The interior of the pocketbook is stitched with the same yarn depicting two sprigs of foliage, one on each side, of greens, natural and red berries. The pocketbook is constructed of the embroidered fabric cut into a long rectangle, folded over at either end to the center to form two pockets, sewn together with a running stitch on the outside edges and has inserts of pasteboard for strength. You can see the worn pasteboard in the photograph of the interior along the openings of the pockets. You can also see the stitches on the verso of the front of the pocketbook.
The embroidery is done in a technique called crewel, or crewelwork. Typically crewelwork embroidery is freehand stitches done with two-ply worsted wool yarn on linen or cotton twill fabric, this example is done on felted wool. While crewelwork utilizes many stitches, this pocketbook is done in mainly stem stitch with some straight stitch and seeded stitches to define flower petals and berries.
Most surviving examples are done with needlework flame stitch in geometric patterns on plain weave linen and lined with silk or linen. But this pocketbook is embroidered with crewelwork and unlined. Those differences make it not just unusual, but rare.
~ Dana Signe K. Munroe, Registrar