Q: I’ve read that a pocket was originally a small bag tied around the waist. Is this true?
A: Yes, etymologically “pocket” is a small bag. It originated as the diminutive of “poke,” an old term for a bag. And, yes, “pockets” were once tied around the outside of garments, not sewn in or on them.
The word “poke” showed up in English in the late 13th century, perhaps borrowed from or influenced by similar words in Anglo-Norman, Old French, or Old Dutch, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED notes a possible sighting from the early 13th century, but its first definite example is from an anonymous Middle English romance written at the end of the century: “Hise pokes fulle of mele an korn.” From The Lay of Havelok the Dane (1280-90), edited by Walter William Skeat in 1868 for the Early English Text Society.
The use of “poke” in this sense survives today in the expression “to buy pig in a poke” (to buy something sight unseen, as if in a bag), first recorded in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Ye loue not to bye the pyg in the poke.” From A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood.
The diminutive form, “pocket,” appeared in Middle English writing in the 14th century, borrowed from the Anglo-Norman term for a little bag (spelled poket, pokete, or pochete). In English it originally had a similar sense (little bag), and was sometimes used as a measure of quantity in agriculture. In the 13th century, according to the OED, a “pocket” of wool was a quarter of a “sack,”
The first OED citation for “pocket” (which we’ll expand here) is from a list, dated 1350, of supplies used for maintaining the old London Bridge: “Also, in the Chapel there, in a pokete, 2500 of wyndounail [window nail], at 2s.6d the thousand, 6s.6d.” From Memorials of London and London Life (1868), edited by Henry Thomas Riley.
In the 15th century, the dictionary says, the noun “pocket” came to mean “any small bag or pouch worn on a person.” The earliest citation is from “The Mirror of the Periods of Man’s Life” (circa 1450), a hymn about the rivalry between virtue and vice for the soul of man:
“ ‘Apparaile þe propirli,’ quod Pride, ‘Loke þi pockettis passe þe lengist gise’ ” (“ ‘Apparel thee properly,’ quoth Pride. ‘Look that thy pockets surpass the latest style’ ”). Published in Hymns to the Virgin & Christ (1867), edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.
At first, tie-on pockets were worn outside the clothing of both men and women. But in the 16th century, the pockets began to be concealed, stitched into men’s clothes and worn under the skirts or petticoats of women’s clothes. Women could reach their pockets through slits hidden in the seams or pleats of their skirts.
We’ve found several references in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I for pockets sewn into the clothes of male servants.
In 1575, for example, “a litle blak a More” (an African) was made “a peire of gaskens” (similar to leggings but baggy at the top) with “pockettes of fustian.” And in 1578, the 3-year-old son of a servant was made “a gowne of carnacion satten” with “pockettes of fustian.” (We wrote about “fustian” in 2018.)
The fashion historian Rebecca Unsworth notes that “the fullness of sixteenth-century dress for both men and women gave ample opportunities for the inclusion and concealment of pocket bags without unsightly bulges.” But a century earlier, “the narrower medieval silhouette” would have “restricted the placement of pockets in clothing.”
By the same reasoning, Unsworth writes, the use of tie-on pockets under women’s dresses “fell out of fashion with the adoption of the slender profile and gauzy fabrics of neo-classical dress at the end of the eighteenth century.”
Her article, “Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women’s Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630,” published in the journal Costume (September 2017), has many illustrations of the different pockets used with men’s and women’s clothing during the period.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an online essay, “A History of Pockets,” that includes many illustrations of the various pockets used by men and women from the 17th to the late 19th century. Three images show a Lady Claphan doll from the 1690s in various stages of dress: fully clothed, in her shift, and in her under-petticoat with pockets tied around the waist.
In the 1790s, women began to wear tie-on pockets outside their dresses again, as in the 15th century, or they carried reticules, decorative bags hung over the arm. But in the 19th century, sewn-in pockets began replacing the tie-ons, which were easy prey for pickpockets.
We’ll end with a 19th-century nursery rhyme about a missing pocket:
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.