August 01, 2009

Purses and Reticules

by Cathy Marie Hake

Antiques--I love 'em. Have a bunch. I'm turning into one, myself. Walk into any antique store, and you'll find some of the toys I played with as a child. (Yes, that does make me old as dirt.) Anything from the Victorian Period captures my attention, and I have clothing, shoes, and purses from the era.

Ah, yes, purses--a simple burgundy silk reticule and a microbeaded rose pattern Antebellum reticule.. a miniscule star-beaded chatelaine, a host of various colored leather bags... and the list goes on. Among the first and most often commented things said is that purses from the 1800s are tiny things. What's the use of a small purse? Then again, what would a woman back then need to carry in her reticule?

Certainly not makeup. Only women of ill-repute wore face paint.

Hair brush? Comb? Highly doubtful. A woman pinned up her hair, then carefully arranged a hat and skewered it in place with a hatpin... or two. Many of those were 7-8" long and acted as additional insurance that her hair wouldn't come down.

What's a purse without money? A lady might have a coin or two--but no more. Many stores extended credit so a lady didn't have to trouble herself with handling cash. Bill could be settled up with the man of the house at a later time. The alternative was that "counter checques" lay by the cash register. A patron could fill one out, and since the local banker knew her and her signature, he honored it on her account.

A fan. (Hey--those poor women wore layers of clothes and they didn't have air conditioning!)

Tiny memopads--the covers made of metal or the entire pad actually a fan-like pile of wafer-thin slices of ivory

A mechanical pencil that telescoped from 2-4" (those fountain pens would leak ink!)

A pretty handkerchief.

Calling cards.

Perhaps a dance card.

BUT NOW IS WHERE THE FUN BEGINS.... it's what we authors add or subtract to a heroine's purse that makes that character come alive. The details carry a wealth of information, so have fun deciding what sets your character apart.

Does she carry smelling salts?

Is there a well-read letter in there?

Why doesn't she have any money? Or why doesn't she have calling cards?

Perhaps she purposefully beaded that extra-large bag to accommodate a dime novel.

Ladies did not chew gum...but your heroine's bag has some in it. Hmmm. What is her prospective mother-in-law going to have to say about that?

Oh, wait. There's a Lady's Derringer in there. If children are around, she can't possibly put her purse down--so how is she going to manage to cook, eat, quilt, or milk a cow while hanging onto that purse? And from whose point of view do you write that scene?

Is she hiding evidence that the ambassador is a traitor so you can ratchet your plot up to a higher plane?

If a total stranger asked you to dump out the entire contents of your purse so he could snoop through them, you'd refuse. It's too private. He'd learn too much.

It's dangerous. Eras change. Styles change. Human nature doesn't. A woman from 1893 would guard her privacy and resent any intrusion--well, almost any woman. In my new book, That Certain Spark, my heroine is a physician. Regardless of social standards, she believes practicality is a far wiser guide of action than merely bowing to public pressure. The hero is pleased to see her wearing a chatelaine purse--a purse attached to her waistband by an ornate metal clamp. After all, he repaired that chatelaine clamp. Imagine his shock and yes, horror, when he realizes she's now using that chatelaine clamp to hold a little 5" square leather purse to her waistband.

Originally, he's pleased, but that delight fades once she boldly opens the purse and shows him all of the medical instruments she'd crammed into that little kit. Taylor, the woman doctor, consistently fights to find a place where she is accepted for who she is. The sutures, bandages, emergency meds, and candy in her emergency purse tell the reader Taylor has found a home.

The trick is making the character real by creating her with flaws and quirks we can all identify with.

And why shouldn't we? Our heavenly Father created us each as unique. He treats us each as a precious one-of-a-kind individual and holds our futures in his hands. I want to be like Abba Father. Whatever He wants, I want. What he does, I want to copy. With His vast imagination, no two individuals are ever alike. I want my characters to be different, too--not only from other ones I've created, but also from those other authors have penned. How else will they be memorable?

So empty your purses or turn the hero's pockets inside out. The contents in a man's pockets can be very telling, too. Especially if there's a hole in his pocket and only one ticket... but that's another story.

Happy Writing!


That Certain Spark
releases this month!

Visit Cathy at



Kathleen L. said...

what a fantastic article. Thanks for sharing this great information, Cathy and Tina.

bigguysmama said...

Hello to one of my favorite authors!! Thanks for giving us some thought provoking insight to what isn't in a woman's purse back in the day!

I'm waiting ever so patiently for your book to come out!! I can hardly wait!!

Mimi B

Vickie McDonough said...

Too fun, Cathy. Thanks for visiting Bustles & Spurs. Can't wait to read you new book.

Susan Page Davis said...

Love it, Cathy. Great to see you here.

Edna said...

Cathy you are one of my favorite authors and if I see your name on a book I settle down and say to myself, (self this is goig to be a great book) no matter the name of it because Cathy Hake wrote it.

Please enter me into a drawing to win one of your books
May God bless


brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Love the book cover! I enjoyed your post, Cathy! I love antiques, too.

Martha A. said...

What interesting info!

Martha A. said...

What interesting info!