Just retired and a lockdown because of Covid-19. What can you do, besides sitting in your chair? Of course, cleaning the attic and throw away what you don’t need anymore. And wondering how much more people can gather things, they don’t need anymore. But then… my eye fell on a tarnished silver chatelaine purse, owned by my grandmother once. She got that chatelaine purse from her mother when she was 6 or 7 years old, so in 1901!
My great-grandmother used that chatelaine purse first to carry nice-smelling spices or dried flowers around and later coins. But I remember my grandmother used her chatelaine purse to put her handkerchief with some peppermint jellies in a little bag.
You get such a warm feeling finding an object from your past, that you have great memories of, especially on the peppermint jellies. And I started to find out where the use of a chatelaine purse or bag came from. I want to share the story with you since I discovered that a chatelaine was as much a piece of jewelry as a necklace, or bracelet was.
What is a chatelaine?
The name comes from the French ‘châtelaine’, the lady or mistress of a castle. She carried all her keys of the doors to the storage- and linen rooms on a silver chain, that was attached to her waist belt, made of leather, with a nicely decorated silver hook. That tradition developed and the ladies from the 16th to the 19th century added some useful utensils on that chain, like sewing necessities, a booklet to write things down, a powder box, etc.
You might say that everything that is in a woman’s purse nowadays was hanging on the chatelaine. And there was a different chatelaine for the keys. And later even a watch was attached to the chatelaine when you could afford a watch that is.
On the waistbelt with a separate hook was the silver cutlery, that is a knife and spoon, with driven handles, encased in a chagrin leather sheath, decorated with silver. When you had diner outside you were supposed to bring your own cutlery. The parents brought their own knife and spoon and served their children with the same cutlery.
The chatelaine as a status increasing object
The chatelaine or the keychain showed the world who was the ‘woman in the house’ or the boss of the household. That keychain contained the keys of all the doors, desks, drawers, storage- and linen rooms. With those keys, she controlled the staff, because she gave access to the rooms the staff needed to be for their work. She controlled what and how much was used for food and drinks etc.
When a girl married and went to live with her husband, most of the time she started to live in the house of her husband’s family with his mother as chief of the household ánd keeper of the chatelaine. The girl had nothing to say in that household. Very frustrating of course.
When the mother-in-law became a widow the wife of the oldest son got the chatelaine and the other women had to follow her and had nothing to say. To show the world they represented something she wore decorative fake chatelaines made of shiny silver so that everyone could see their chatelaine.
The chatelaine developed.
For ages and ages, a bag was exclusively worn by men. In Ancient Times, Egyptian nobles wore fanny packs (to be seen on hieroglyphics). African priests walk around with beaded herb pouches and on Greek vases, you see hunters and soldiers with a kind of bag.
Since the bags were made of cloth all the bags and purses are gone. But what we find in graves is that the smaller the bags were, the better. A bag is for showing off since there were servants to carry your stuff around. And that bag had silver fittings and expensive very delicate embroidery or fabrics, like velvet.
The small bags were filled with exquisite nice smalling herbs or flowers, to hide the bad odor. At the time there was no deodorant, showers, or perfume. Or nobles who could afford to smell badly had small bags with game chips in them and they were decorated with their family weapon so that everyone knew whose bag it was.
A bit of ‘bag’ history
In the late Middle Ages, the bags were worn with a silver cord on the waist belt. But the cities grew and poverty was a ‘thing’. Slowly, a new crime developed ‘cutting purses’. To protect their belongings the bags were hidden under the clothing and in the male fashion, the pockets made their appearance.
But no pockets for ladies. They hide their valuables between their petticoats and regular skirts in loose thigh pockets. On every thigh, they had a soft embroidered bag, without the silver fittings (that would hurt too much) and at the height of every thigh, there was a loose seam in the skirt to come to the bag. This was possible due to the fashion of the hoop skirts, which were as wide as a 2 seater sofa.
After the French Revolution in 1789 and the decline of the court culture the new trend was a simple dress, straight down, made of flexible fabrics. A thigh pocket looked awful under those slim delicate dresses, so the thigh pocket was an exit.
And the handbag was coming up
The new bags looked like a kind of net with tassels and they were closed like a pouch. They were called reticules (means ‘net’ in Latin) and women who walked around with such a bag were targets of scone. Critics thought that it was like the women walked on the street in their underwear since you could see what was in the bag. The nickname for the bag was ‘ridicules’.
The chatelaine purse in the Netherlands
In the late 17th-century chatelaine bags or purses became very popular in the Netherlands. That chatelaine purse had a very expensive silver fitting or was made of pot metal (strips of metal were melted in a pot and the fitting was cast). The bag itself was of luxurious fabrics and embroidery. In it were up to 18 secret lockets for secret female things. It was custom that girls who had to learn the art of embroidery started with making a chatelaine purse.
Since the fitting was expensive it was passed over from mother to daughter and according to fashion, the bag was changed in the trending fabrics or embroideries.
The chatelaine purses were hooked to the waistbelt or skirt band under the apron with a silver or pot metal clasp. In the 18th century when the silk and delicate dresses came in fashion the chatelaine purses came in the open, not under the apron or skirt, attached on the waist belt, but the same chatelaine purse with a snap closure and a small chain as a handle, to keep it in your hand. The handbag with the silver fittings was born.
A chatelaine purse for the social upperclass
In the Netherlands, but also in the Victorian Period in England, the chatelaine (key chain with utensils) and the chatelaine purse were worn together on the waist belt. So practical and you had your hands free. In the second half of the 18th-century, the chatelaine purse became more popular with the social upper class. They were the ones who could afford such a precious silver bag and when you owed one you were the talk of the town.
At that time the chatelaine purse was attached to the waist belt with the help of a beautiful decorated silver clasp. To show off to your friends the apron was uplifted a bit so that the chatelaine purse could be seen properly.
Made in Schoonhoven, the silver city of the Netherlands
The center of the silversmiths and the silver industry in the Netherlands is Schoonhoven. A very nice city where my father was educated as a jeweler. Anyway, the silversmiths made the silver fittings for the chatelaine purses, but more and more ladies want to have such a purse with silver fittings. The problem was that they could not really afford it and when a mother had two daughters only one could inherit her silver chatelaine purse.
The silversmiths decided to enlarge their target audience and started to make silver fittings, beautifully decorated at the front and plain on the back. Nobody saw the back anyway, so why do so much trouble to decorate that side.
How did the silver fittings or bag brackets look like?
The bag brackets consist of two parts, the front, and the back cover. The parts are hinged. There is an edge (bridge) on the inside of the front cover over the entire length, the width of which can vary. The cover page has been edited. The hidden back cover has remained smooth for centuries, with a few exceptions. A spring is riveted to the inside of the rim, to which the closing button is attached.
A hook is welded to the back, which ensures that the bag does not fall open after locking. Furthermore, a locking pin has been mounted on the back, through which a ring runs. Over the years, the bail bag has been a safe place to store money. The bag was hidden from view with the apron of the wearer over it. Due to a change in the dressing habits of some of the rural women at the end of the 19th century, the hoop bag was modernized by mounting a carrying chain so that it could serve as a handbag.
The silver used for the chatelaine fittings
Various techniques were used to make utility silver, the category to which the chatelaine purse belongs, such as casting, gears, and sheet metal. A silver bar was used for the sheet metal, which was hammered and rolled by hand until the correct sheet thickness was obtained. Making gears was the most labor-intensive technique. Molds, also called dies, were used to make castings. The vast majority of bag brackets are made of second-grade silver.
Chatelaine purse or bag as a wedding gift
Before the exchange of engagement or wedding rings became customary, it was the custom in various regions in the East of the Netherlands for the groom and bride to exchange gifts in the form of utility silver during the bridal days. In Staphorst, the tradition that the groom gave a silver chatelaine bag to his wife-to-be has survived until 1974.
In every region in the Netherlands the silver fittings or the bag brackets of the chatelaine purse of the bag looked a bit different, the decoration was different and of course, the silversmiths had their own ‘style’ in making such bags.
Back to my grandmother’s chatelaine mesh purse. I did not know anything before studying what the history and the meaning of such chatelaine purses is. The good memories of my grandmother stay alive with this purse, and the smell of the peppermint jellies is still there when you try hard. The purse will get a beautiful spot in my room!
I’ll bet that you did not know that besides a necklace, bracelets, a pair of earrings, and a brooch also a purse or handbag could be regarded as ‘jewels’. Well if you look at the pictures in this blog I hope you agree with me that these bags definitely deserve the title ‘jewels’.
For me, the nicest thing about the whole story is that the ladies of all times see what ‘fashion’ is making them more beautiful. And find practical solutions for their problems taking into account the fashion. They used thigh bags when you cannot see them in their skirts, but immediately when they started wearing clothing made of delicate fabrics they stopped wearing chatelaines and chatelaine purses. Sine those bumps on your thighs don’t look right, do they?
Do you know what jewelry accentuates your best features and what jewelry doesn’t? And do you know how to camouflage your lesser features with the right jewelry? I wrote a PDF about it full of tips and tricks. It’s free and you just have to let me know where I can send it to.
Hug, Florence from FlorenceJewelshop