A Pocket of One’s Own

From ages 7 to let’s say 10 but honestly it was older than 10, my at first most-prized and later on most-loved possession was my Felicity American Girl doll. Like all of the historical American G’s, Felicity had a backstory — she was from colonial Williamsburg, and her father was a shopkeeper and a revolutionary who sold chocolate instead of tea. In school, we covered the American Revolution as often as testing standards and obligation to gloss over other countries’ histories allowed, but much of what I know of that time, I owe to Felicity. For instance: in colonial Williamsburg, women’s pockets were standalone, large, floppy things attached to a sash and worn under their dresses, between their petticoat and under petticoat.

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Felicity’s pocket had pretty embroidery, but, even at 6, I remember thinking that the concept of having to root through layers of fabric just to get to a spare pin or some egg money somewhat ridiculous. And yet, when they were first introduced, pockets were somewhat revolutionary themselves, for they allowed women to conduct errands of commerce and pay social calls without having to rely on the long-extant pockets of the menfolk. Women, needless to say, loved them. The Victoria and Albert Museum rounded up a number of pocket-related writings, among them a raison d’etre from the inestimable Teresa Tidy:

‘It is also expedient to carry about you a purse, a thimble, a pincushion, a pencil, a knife and a pair of scissors, which will not only be an inexpressible source of comfort and independence, by removing the necessity of borrowing, but will secure the privilege of not lending these indispensable articles.

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A pocket was not a room of one’s own, but it was a start. The reticule took it a step further. Reticules are small, netted drawstring bags — the very first handbag. They came about at the end of the eighteenth century to abet the more body-conscious restrictions of the grecian, empire-waisted-style of gown that had replaced the hoop&petticoat as the de rigeur womanswear.

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Reticules tended to be more delicate and far less spacious than the pocket, and for these offenses Teresa Tidy labeled them “ridicules” — but their feebleness led to larger, more structured handbags on the one hand, and attached pockets on the other, inventions which have endured to this day.

The English word pocket can be traced through Old North French poche to Proto-Germanic *puk without a change in meaning, though its original Proto-Indo-European root *beu means “to swell.” Reticule, meanwhile, comes first from the French réticule, aka a hair net, but fancy. Reticule comes from the Latin reticulum, meaning a little net, from rete, which is just plain net. Rete itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ere, which means to separate. And this is quite fun because you can think of a reticule as a separate piece that brought women peace, or at least a bit of convenience. First comes reticules, then comes suffrage, as the saying goes.

I don’t see many reticules today, though antique shops sometimes have lovely beaded ones. But, if you want to say something has a webbed or netlike appearance, you can say it is reticulated, which is how Anthony Doerr described a dome in All The Light We Cannot See, and how I got onto this topic in the first place.

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A Pocket of One’s Own