When did beaded bags first appear?
The tale of beaded bags is intertwined with the history of beads. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century, references ‘a purse of leather tasseled with silk, with latten beading sown’, while travellers’ tales in the 14th and 15th centuries record beads being made in Murano – Italy dominated the bead industry for over 300 years before makers in Bohemia and then Czechoslovakia gained ground.
Guilds of purse makers in the 16th century maintained high standards of workmanship for pouches, which were often embellished with beadwork. Survivors from the 1600s show the way in which beads were used to outline embroidery.
Illustrations from the 18th century show how beads were made at the time: lengths of glass were hollowed with an air bubble then cut and finished by hand. Integral pockets didn’t make an appearance in dress until the 1840s so bags were a practical consideration. Chatelaine-style bags (suspended from the waist) and reticules (drawstring bags, usually hung from the wrist) dominated into the early 20th century.
How were they made?
Beadwork demanded needlecraft skill and the ability to devise and interpret patterns. At one end of the social spectrum, the pieceworker toiled over bags that were sent off to frame makers. At the other, privileged young ladies often presented their homemade bags as gifts or favours. Knitting with thin steel needles and crochet were the most popular methods of beading in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A modestly beaded bag could use as many as 100 bundles of beads (each bundle held 1,000 beads). Bag frames were available from ironmongers and drapers, and were carefully chosen to match the detailing of the bag.
For the average manual worker in 1901, a beaded bag cost roughly three quarters of their weekly wage, which explains the keen interest in stitching at home. With the arrival of pre-printed canvases in the 1920s, a girl with relatively little skill could suddenly make her own beaded bag by following the black outline in needlepoint.
Which are the key names?
Early bags are largely anonymous – it’s only from the 1950s that firms such as Walborg (a big importer of beaded clutches into the USA from Europe), American company Josef and Austrian company Jolles make an appearance. The Josef bags, in particular, are admired for both their beadwork and their faux gem-set frames.
How much should I expect to pay?
‘You can find a good 1930s beaded bag for as little as £20,’ says MeMeWorld owner Kerry Agar-Hynd. ‘Most of the pieces I’ve acquired have been well under £150. I think of them as pieces of jewellery.’ Beaded clutch bags from after World War II are a good, affordable place to start a collection – look out for examples made in France or Belgium. In contrast, the deco era attracts aficionados who will pay around £400 for striking shapes and patterns. Faced with something that excites you, look carefully at the detail: a magnifying glass will help you spot lose threads and missing beads, and whether you are looking at early cut seed beads or later moulded glass.