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Letter Cases, Pocketbooks and Purses

The Straw Shop would like to explore the use of straw work in the evolution of letter cases, pocketbooks and purses in fashion.

The Straw Shop is using this original article to explore straw work techniques in the evolution of letter cases, pocketbooks, and purses. The Straw Shop has realized through the process of research that the artifacts in museums and historical or personal collections around the world are mostly housed in storage and are not on public display. The Straw Shop is especially apprec­­­iative to be able to share a collection of images showing these exquisitely decorated items.  The contributors are named in the image captions and also listed at the end of this article.

According to the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan:

“From the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century skirt outlines change from a wide expanse of expansive style to the slender Empire style that recall the form of the Greek column as a result of the pocket that had previously been worn inside the dress could no longer exist and the handbag on the outside was needed in its place.”

According to Museum of Bags Amsterdam:

“From the earliest stages of civilization, bags and purses were practical everyday articles used by men as well as women. They were necessary for carrying money and other personal items, since clothes hadn’t yet been fitted out with pockets. We know what they looked like from paintings, prints and tapestries and the few historical handbags preserved in museums. Such antique bags are rare because they were mostly made out of perishable materials.  Bags and purses came in a variety of designs for a number of purposes, such as bags with clasps, leather pouches and purses with long drawstrings. With the exception of some rare shoulder bags, these were all worn attached to the belt or girdle. The introduction of pockets towards the end of the 16th century meant that the men’s bags slowly disappeared in the course of the 17th century. From then on bags belonged almost exclusively to the women’s domain.”

“Straw! Straw! Straw! Everything is ornamented with straw from the cap to the shoe buckle; and Ceres seems to be the favorite idol with not only the female but the male part of the fashionable world, for the gentlemens waistcoats are ribbed with straw.”  This quote appeared in European Magazine and London Review, February 1783 in an article by the Man-Millner.

The earliest example decorated with straw we have found is the little pocketbook, shown below, in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  It is described as: “Flowers, winged heart and bird ingeniously executed with natural and shades of red, possibly dyed, straw splints in satin stitch, porcupine quill work (zig zag pattern using contrasting colours of the straw) and wrapping (straw splint wrapped round a length of thread). The outline of the straw motifs is a couched line of a fine two straw plait, probably splints.” Further described as:  “A man’s pocket book (sic) of white satin, 1720-40, probably Italian; embroidered with coloured silks, metal thread and straw splints. The dimensions are Length: 177 mm, Width: 120 mm excluding flap.’  (Length: 7 inches Width: 4 3/4 inches wide)  Museum Number: T.29-1915.

Straw embroidery pocket book 1700 France V&A Museum side 1 jpg

Pocketbook front 1720-40. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Straw embroidery pocket book 1700 France V&A Museum side 2 back

Pocketbook, back, 1720-40, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although the original museum records state it is probably of Italian origin knowledge of this type of work has increased in the decades since the pocketbook was first documented and it may have been made in France.

According to Barbara Fitch, Straw Worker and Textile Artist, England, in the tiny town of Nozeroy France, the convents there had a history of straw embroidery going back to 1650.   “La Marqueterie de Paille ”  by De Caunes/ Baumgartner describe similar pieces as:  “These wallets in straw embroidered on silk testify to a secular production made in convents and sold outside.” They don’t identify a particular town or region but do identify a link to convents. It is worth noting that the motif of a chalice on one side of the pocketbook and a winged heart on the back possibly refer to religious devotion.

In her article “Straw-the blond Goddess: The Adaptation of a Folk Tradition to Fashion” Helen Perrson, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, writes about the purse and informs us that there is a pocketbook of similar design in the collection of Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Lyon, France. She also says these pocketbooks are the production of French convents which specialized in straw embroidery.

From the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s collection the following item is described by them as French. “This is a Purse. It is dated 18th century and we acquired it in 1925. Its medium is silk and straw embroidery on silk foundation and its technique is embroidered on satin weave. It is a part of the Textiles Department.”  H x W: 18 x 18 cm (7 1/16 x 7 1/16 in.) 1925-1-52

straw embroidered purse 18th century , Courtesy Coopers-Hewitt National Design Museum

1700s silk purse, reverse, courtesy of Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

 

straw embroidery

1700s silk purse, reverse, courtesy of Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

The Cooper-Hewitt purse appears to perhaps be a mix of dyed straw splints, plaited straw and embroidery silks. Note the use of similar embroidery techniques and colored straw. While this example is not as elaborate as the V&A pocketbook The Straw Shop considers that there are similarities.

The Museum of Fine Arts Boston describes their example, shown below, as: “Straw embroidery purse 1725 to 1750 French, Silk embroidered with silk, straw, metallic thread, metal purl, spangles.”  Their detailed description states: “Small escutcheon-shaped purse. Panels of white plain weave silk completely embroidered with polychrome silk, straw, metallic thread, wire, metal spangles. Silk threads worked in French knot, stem stitch. Straw is laid and couched with silk. Metallic threads in bullion knot, raised work, and securing metal spangles.  Different motifs on either side. Obverse: woman seated under tree with lamb; reverse: man standing in field with building in distance; both framed in Baroque motifs. Gilt-galloon binding. Two pleated side panels of blue silk damask. Steel frame, no closure. White silk lining (discolored).” Overall: 11.8 x 9.2 cm (4 5/8 x 3 5/8 in.) Accession Number 43.1274    Their website provides only one view.

 

straw embroidery purse 1725 to 1750 French Silk embroidered with silk, straw, metallic thread, metal purl, spangles Courtesy MFA museum of Fine Arts Boston

1725 to 1750, French purse, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

You will note we are now observing a different embroidery technique executed with straw.  Upon closer examination the purse shown above is very similar in construction to a pair of straw decorated shoes dated 1750 found in the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.  The description of the shoe seems to apply to the purse as well: “Decorated with ornate straw strips or splints.  The embroidery is integrated into the straw splints with the stitches formed between the splints not splitting them. This is a style of embroidery originating in gold work embroidery. It is called Or Nué Embroidery. ”

couched straw, embroidered straw, straw splints, womens-shoe-c-1750-couched-straw-splints-embroidered-with-silk-and-metal-thread-courtesy-victoria-and-albert-museum

Women’s shoe c-1750 couched straw splints embroidered with silk and metal thread Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

Another example of a purse, decorated with Or Nué embroidery, is also credited to the 18th century by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is described as an Italian or French etui:  “On the front, straw wefts are interwoven with colored silk threads, creating a floral pattern surrounding a cartouche showing a column in a landscape. Continuing on the back, the Latin motto reads: DIVES IN OMNES AUT ERIGI AUT DESTRURI (“Rich in all, either raised or pulled down”). The medium is described as, “Straw, silk, and metal thread; metal spangles; silk lining.” “Overall (confirmed): 7 1/2 x 4 7/8 x 1/2 in. (19.1 x 12.4 x 1.3 cm).”  Accession Number:52.185.2   This information is taken from their website, but they may be describing another piece altogether as we see no Latin motto on either side of the piece based on the photographs offered.

The website offers several images of their purse.  Here is the front side:

Straw purse, 18th century, Italian or French, Front, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The next image shows another detailed design worked with silk threads on the reverse side.

straw embroidery, straw purse, lettercase, Metropolitan Museumof Art, The Straw Shop

Straw purse 18th century back view complete, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Thankfully the Metropolitan Museum provided this image; a close-up of a section of the reverse side clearly showing how the silk threads are worked over the straw to create the elaborate design:

Straw purse, 18th century, Italian or French, Reverse side, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Another close-up shows the straw embellished with silk threads:

astraw embroidery, straw decorated, straw embroidered purses, straw letter cases,Metropolitan Musem of Art New York, The Straw Shop

Straw purse, 18th century, Italian or French, detail, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It is interesting the same embroidery techniques were used for both shoes and purses. This appears to indicate the popularity of straw as a fashion accessory in this period. This embroidery technique does offer protection to the straw and allows flexibility however, including all other examples shown, correct preparation of the straw is vital to success.  Prior to their use, the straw splints probably were bleached and prepared to make them soft and maximize their flexibility.

The next case was sold at auction in 2010 with the following description: “A blue silk background embroidered with straw work and silk thread depicts foliate motifs, dogs, birds, and two entwined love hearts. The case was said to have been made by Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817).  The Princess was the only child of George Prince of Wales and Caroline Brunswick who unfortunately died at the young age of 21 during child birth.”  It may have later been gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection. Characterized by the Museum as an early 19th century straw work letter case in an envelope style.  It is  further described as: “Letter case, blue silk with straw work and coloured silk embroidery, labelled ‘Letter case made by Princess Charlotte’, c.1810”. Origin: Unknown  Museum Number T.18-2013. It measures 17.5 cm by 10 cm. (6.8 inches x 3.9 inches).

The next wallet is described as having been made in the Netherlands between 1840 and 1860.  It is described as: “Silk wallet embroidered with straw, hair and silk, Netherlands, circa 1840-1860.”  It is from Museum of Bags Amsterdam. Accession Number 2193. The Straw Shop is grateful to the Museum of Bags Amsterdam for providing the following image:
straw embroidered, Museum of Bags, The Straw Shop

Silk wallet embroidered with straw, hair and silk, Netherlands, ca. 1840-1860, Courtesy Museum of Bags Amsterdam

Both of the above objects are very similar in embroidery style and with common subject matter; dogs. The Victoria and Albert example shows a bird above the dogs while the Museum of Bags example shows the dogs next to a flaming heart, reminiscent of the heart appearing in the first example shown in this article. Does the flaming heart symbolism refer to religious devotion or does it represent passion for something or someone?  Does the symbolism of the dogs refer to nobility? According to Wikipedia: “Dogs were depicted to symbolize guidance, protection, loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness, alertness, and love.”

The hat shown below is recorded as having been made in England or France between 1750 and 1775. It is described by Museum of Fine Arts Boston as: “Hat, round brim, low crown of light golden brown straw.”  Accession Number: 38.1328. The similarities of patterns and techniques of straw embroidery on the hat and the purses shown above and below is worth noting.

Embroidered straw lace hat, circa 1780

Woman’s straw embroidered hat 1750 1775, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The Straw Shop made the acquaintance of Musinsky Rare Books who shared their letter case, purchased on eBay and described by Musinsky Rare Books as: “Rectangular envelope-style pocketbook with flap, 90 x 162 mm.(3.5 inches x 6.37 inches), pasteboards covered in blue silk, embroidered in straw and colored silk, each cover and flap with a different design of stylized flowers and birds, ivory silk lining”. Unfortunately no dating or provenance was attributed to this piece. The Straw Shop is grateful to Musinsky Rare Books for providing the following images:

Antique Pocketbook, Musinsky Rare Books, Inc., straw embroidery, The Straw Shop

Pocketbook front view, Courtesy Musinsky Rare Books, Inc.

Antique Pocketbook, Musinsky Rare Books, Inc., straw embroidery, The Straw Shop

Pocketbook rear view, Courtesy Musinsky Rare Books, Inc.

Although showing similarities to other examples there are some interesting differences in the techniques used in the Musinsky example. There is greater use of embroidery with silk and the areas of flattened straw are more prominent in the design. Does this indicate a different place of production?

Further describing these letter cases, The Museum of Bags Amsterdam states: “From the 17th century, letter cases were used for keeping valued (love) letters, securities and bills of exchange. These letter cases showed great variation: materials such as leather, silk, glass beads and straw were used and many were embroidered with silk or metal thread and decorated with petals and foil. Letter cases were often presented as gifts at engagements and weddings or as keepsakes. The imagery and patterns on letter cases often referred to love and constancy: cupids, flaming hearts, Venus – the goddess of love – and anchors.”

The Cooper- Hewitt Design Museum offered several images of their letter case.  It is described as: “Letter Case (Italy), 18th century; straw, paper, linen; H x W: 17.8 x 15.9 cm (7 x 6 1/4 in.); Bequest of Richard Cranch Greenleaf in memory of his mother, Adeline Emma Greenleaf; 1962-58-24.”

This case is further described as: “Its medium is straw, paper, linen and its technique is embroidered in couching stitches.”

 

Straw embroideryLetter Case Italy 18th Cent Courtesy CooperHewitt

Straw embroidery letter case, front, Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum

Here is a picture of the same letter case with the front flap opened to better reveal the detailed pattern. Notice the depiction of flaming hearts in the center of the case.

Letter Case, reverse, (Italy), 18th century front . Courtesy Cooper Hewitt

Letter Case, (Italy), 18th century front, Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum

If this image were enlarged you would better see the strand that has come loose at the bottom is two-straw plait!

It is important to note the color discrepancies which often occur when photographing straw items.  Without seeing the item in person it is often difficult to distinguish the actual colors.

Straw embroideryLetter Case Italy 18th Century CourtesyCooperHewitt

Straw embroidery letter case, back, Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

Notice the birds in the design as depicted below:

Letter Case (Italy), 18th century back .Courtesy Cooper Hewitt

Letter Case (Italy), 18th century back, Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum

If you could examine this purse under magnification you would see it is an extremely fine two-straw plait, as opposed to two-ply straw threads found in the work of the 1800s. In the 1700s two-straw plait made from splints or extremely fine straw is frequently found on straw decorated items.

Straw Letter Case, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, straw embroidery, The Straw Shop

Straw Letter Case detail courtesy Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum

The next letter case is also from the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum collection: “This is a Letter case. It is dated 18th century and we acquired it in 1951. Its medium is silk and straw embroidery on silk foundation and its technique is couched flat, twisted and braided plant stem material on plain weave foundation.” H x W: 10 x 16 cm (3 15/16 x 6 5/16 in.) 1951-105-18

The next two images are of the same side of the letter case.

Straw embroidery 18th cent Letter case silk and straw Courtesy Cooper Hewitt

18th Century silk and straw Letter Case Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum

Both examples in the Cooper-Hewitt collection incorporate very similar techniques and include far more two-straw plait than found in the designs of the previous examples shown in this article

No place of manufacture is attributed to this letter case.

Straw embroidery 18th cent Letter case BACK silk and straw Courtesy Cooper Hewitt

Back of 18th century silk and straw letter case, Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum

The Straw Shop was privileged to see in person the next example from The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (LACMA), described as: “France or Switzerland, 18th century, silk satin, straw embroidery, 4 1/2 in. × 6 5/8 in. (11.43 × 16.83 cm). Costume Council Fund (M.82.122.1).

LACMA straw pocketbook, Courtesy LACMA

LACMA straw pocketbook, Courtesy LACMA

The Straw Shop was most grateful to be given permission to photograph LACMA’s pocketbook in detail. The various styles of straw embroidery work is best seen in the following detailed photographs. This is the same two-straw plait as seen in the Cooper- Hewitt example above.

LACMA pocketbook detail taken by The Straw Shop

LACMA pocketbook detail, Copyright The Straw Shop courtesy of LACMA

LACMA straw pocketbook photo of straw shop

LACMA Pocketbook detail, Copyright The Straw Shop courtesy of LACMA

These are all the examples of straw embroidered pocketbooks/letter cases found thus far by The Straw Shop’s research. If you know of more, please share. What can be seen are both the similarities of the pocketbook or letter case shape and size, the straw work techniques incorporated but you can also see the differences in design. Further research is required to increase our understanding of the country or countries of production.

There are other forms of straw decorated pocketbooks that the The Straw Shop will present in the next part of this article.

The following example was obtained from Ruby Lane whose description is included below:

“Georgian Pocketbook Straw Work Purse Letter Case Portefeuille Bourse C 1770

We are very excited to be able to offer our international purse and straw work collectors this oh so RARE example. This gorgeous pocketbook, letter case, card case or wallet – many names used for such an item (bourse portefeuille in France) dates from the last quarter of the 18th century and was produced by a French or Dutch straw worker.

Pocketbooks/ wallets/ or letter cases as they are often called were used by both sexes to carry their important letters, bills, receipts and notes. They can be found made out of leather for men, and highly decorated silk embroidered examples and woven brocade examples for women. Straw and straw embroidered examples are very scarce as the fragile natural materials can perish over the centuries.

Our example is a fine example as it displays with great beauty the ancient skill of straw marquetry. Tiny strips of straw were split and colored and laid out in different directions using fancy geometric patterning to showcase the reflective qualities of the straw strips. The eight sided star is the main symbol seen to the front and reverse. Interestingly the eight sided star is an ancient christian symbol that is called the Star of Redemption. Our pocketbook has three inner vellum compartments each hand decorated with a pink colored ink substance. The sides of each compartment made from folded vellum documents – written in Latin and French see the dates 1769 and 1770.”

Measuring 13.3 cm (5.25″) by 8.7 cm (3.5″).

Straw Letter case purse circa 1770 French pocketbook purse letter case courtesy ruby lanejpg

Circa 1770 French pocketbook, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

Here is the reverse side followed by an interior view:

Straw purse, reverse side c 1770. JPG

Circa 1770 French pocketbook purse letter case, reverse side, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

The hinges of the pocketbook appear to be heavy paper rather than fabric as seen in other straw work requiring a hinge however it should be noted that the paper may conceal fabric underneath.

Circa 1770 French pocketbook purse letter case, interior showing dividers and vellum, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

Circa 1770 French pocketbook purse letter case, interior showing dividers and vellum, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

Here are two images showing text inside the pocketbook.

Circa 1770 French pocketbook purse letter case, showing writing, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

Circa 1770 French pocketbook showing writing, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

 

Circa 1770 French pocketbook purse letter case, interior writing ,Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane.

Circa 1770 French pocketbook interior writing, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane.

 

Straw Georgian purse from side C 1770

Circa 1770 French pocketbook from side, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

 

Circa 1770 French pocketbook marbled paper, Courtesy eBay and Ruby Lane

This exquisite example of a pocketbook decorated with straw marquetry raises many questions.  The Straw Shop would like to add our additional observations about this paper-based pocketbook.  The pocketbook is similar in size to the other examples presented thus far.  The un-decorated with straw paper appears to be marbled rather than painted.  How would one know if it was French or Dutch?  Do the languages of either Latin or French on the paper really tell us anything? Is this item being dated solely on the materials used to make it? The papers have the dates 1769 and 1770 on them but that doesn’t prove the year it was made, only that it was not made earlier.  Where was the printed paper from?  Are there other examples? The patterns are similar to patterns found on other straw marquetry objects dating to this period. Does the star pattern really refer to an ancient Christian symbol? While examples of pocketbooks shown in this article include symbols of love and devotion it should be noted that this form of star design was often included in straw marquetry designs used to decorate a range of objects from the late 1700s onward and this attribution is not found elsewhere.

The next series of photos are courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having the opportunity to see more than one angle of this purse is exciting. The purse is said to be a gift from HM Queen Mary in 1925.  The description is as follows: “Purse, leather, flat of oval section, decorated in green and yellow straw-work with floral scrolls of Chinese design, hinged flap with ground. Inside are a pocket with hinged flap and a mirror.”  The purse is attributed to the date range of 1820-1840. Notice the inlaid straw style which is a design characteristic found in many 1700s straw marquetry pieces, none of which have been described in other documents as ‘scrolls of Chinese design’. The 1700s was a period of Chinese influence in fashion called Chinoiserie. (Chinoiserie (pronounced Shen-wah-seh-ree) derives from the French word chinois, meaning “Chinese”, or “after the Chinese taste”. The desire to imitate Chinese patterns influenced decorative objects and textiles and were highly prized objects. Perhaps an investigation of Chinoiserie and its influence on straw marquetry designs of the period is an area of research worth pursuing.

straw purse front 1820-1840 Great Britain, courtesy V&A Museum

1820-1840, front, England, courtesy V&A Museum

straw purse back 1820-1840 Great Britain, courtesy V&A Museum

Straw purse back, 1820-1840, origin England, courtesy V&A Museum

In their book items of this type are described by De Caunes and Baumgartner as: “Refined objects of society people.”  They further describe this piece as: “a pouch in straw marquetry and leather opening on to a mirror.” It may in fact have been used more as a compact rather than a purse.

straw purse Interior 1820-1840 Great Britain, courtesy V&A Museum

Straw purse interior, 1820-1840, origin England, courtesy V&A Museum

The Straw Shop always welcomes your comments and additional information on the subjects presented.  Should you have an example appropriate to this page we would welcome the opportunity to include it.