Monday, March 18, 2013

The Little Beaded Bag

QUESTION: I recently purchased a little beaded bag at an antique show. It’s so delicate and finely done. Can you tell me how I might figure out how old it is and perhaps something about beaded bags in general?

ANSWER: After years of languishing in attic trunks and flea markets, antique beaded bags have become among the most sought after collectibles. This has caused prices, and thus value to soar in recent years.

Until the 16th century, women wore purses dangling from the waist. By the 17th century, flat tapestry or embroidered wallets were common. But by the late 18th century, the hand-carried framed or drawstring purse or handbag had appeared. Especially prized were French sable beaded bags made of beads so tiny it took about 1,000 to make a square inch. Designs included commemorative scenes like the first balloon flight in 1783.

In the early 19th century, women began carrying their indispensables—handkerchief, fan, perfume bottle—in little drawstring bags made of fabric. Often elaborately trimmed with beads or lace, they called them "reticules." So popular was the reticule that it became an absolute "must" for fashionable ladies of the 19th century.

Between 1820 and 1830, beaded bags supported by metal frames came into vogue. Coming primarily from France and Austria, the frames were made of everything from pinchbeck, an alloy of cooper and zinc made to look like gold, to tortoiseshell. Makers attached chains, often formed of decorative, ornate links,  to the frames.

Floral beaded purses flourished from the mid to late 1800s. At that time, milliners, perfumers, and trinket shops sold beaded purses,, but Victorian ladies, who prided themselves on their fancywork, often made their own from patterns found in Godey's Lady's Book and other fashion publications. They particularly favored floral designs of tulips, roses, lilies, and forget-me-nots in bouquets or strewn across a solid background of beads. Only the most experienced beaders attempted intricate landscape, Biblical, and figurative motifs. The finer the beads used, the more tapestry-like the appearance.

By the early 20th century, beaded bags had become increasingly fashionable. Frames were more ornate, often made of solid gold, sterling silver, nickel, amber, ivory, or celluloid and often heavily engraved or embossed, embellished with gemstones, filigree, pearls or enamel work.

The criteria for judging a purse's value include condition, rarity, bead size, complexity of pattern, and the uniqueness of the frame. Some of these frames are remarkably detailed works on their own, ornately executed in silver, wrought gold, or brass, and inset with tiny stones and pearls. Each bag has its own personality. Some are very regal and elegant while others are more simple, homespun pieces.

Dating a beaded bag can be a challenge since newer bags are often made with older beads. For instance, beads from the early 19th century might be used to decorate bags made in the 1920s. And while a bag's frame can sometimes provide clues to its age, not even this is foolproof.