The term "purse" originally referred to a small bag for holding coins. In many English-speaking countries, it is still used to refer to a small money bag. A "handbag" is a larger accessory that holds objects beyond currency, such as personal items. American English typically uses the terms purse and handbag interchangeably. The term handbag began appearing in the early 1900s. Initially, it was most often used to refer to men's hand-luggage. Women's bags grew larger and more complex during this period, and the term was attached to the accessory. "Pocketbook" is another term for a woman's handbag that was most commonly used on the East Coast of the United States in the mid-twentieth century.
Early modern Europeans wore purses for one sole purpose: to carry coins. Purses were made of soft fabric or leather and were worn by men as often as ladies; the Scottish sporran is a survival of this custom. In the 17th century, young girls were taught embroidery as a necessary skill for marriage; this also helped them make very beautiful handbags. By the late 18th century, fashions in Europe were moving towards a slender shape for these accessories, inspired by the silhouettes of Ancient Greece and Rome. Women wanted purses that would not be bulky or untidy in appearance, so reticules were designed. Reticules were made of fine fabrics like silk and velvet, carried with wrist straps. First becoming popular in France, they crossed over into Britain, where they became known as "indispensables."Men, however, did not adopt the trend. They used purses and pockets, which became popular in men's trousers.
The modern purse, clutch, pouch or handbag came about in England during the Industrial Revolution, in part due to the increase in travel by railway. In 1841 the Doncaster industrialist and confectionery entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson (of butterscotch fame) ordered a set of traveling cases and trunks and insisted on a traveling case or bag for his wife's particulars after noticing that her purse was too small and made from material that would not withstand the journey. He stipulated that he wanted various handbags for his wife, varying in size for different occasions and asked that they be made from the same leather that was being used for his cases and trunks to distinguish them from the then-familiar carpetbag and other travelers' cloth bags used by members of the popular classes.
H. J. Cave (London) obliged and produced the first modern set of luxury handbags, as we would recognize them today, including a clutch and a tote (named as 'ladies traveling case'). These are now on display in the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam H. J. Cave did continue to sell and advertise the handbags, but many critics said that women did not need them and that bags of such size and heavy material would 'break the backs of ladies.' H. J. Cave ceased to promote the bags after 1865, concentrating on trunks instead, although they continued to make the odd handbag for royalty, celebrities or to celebrate special occasions, the Queen's 2012 Diamond Jubilee being the most recent. However, H.J. Cave resumed handbag production in 2010.
During the 1940s, the rationing of textiles for World War II led to the manufacturing of handbags made in materials like raffia or crocheted from yarn. Some women crocheted their own small handbags from commercial patterns during this period.
Handbags that are designed for specific utilitarian needs include:
- Laptop purse: a medium to large bag that contains a padded interior compartment or sleeve for protecting a laptop computer
- Camera bag: for carrying photography equipment
- Gym bag: for carrying toiletry items and the clothing and/or shoes a person intends to use for their workout
- Cosmetic bag: a small bag for holding cosmetics, often made of synthetic waterproof protective material
- Duffle bag: a large cylindrical bag usually used for travel or sports gear, sometimes called a "weekend bag"
- Security bag: protects the carrier from travel theft and includes an invisible stainless steel strap sewn into the fabric and a protectant on the main zipper.
- Diaper bag: carry all necessities for baby with numerous pockets including a removable changing pad.