Purses Part 12: How Were Purses Used Historically?

Now that we have the concept of how a Medieval metal frame purse is made, we should probably look at how they were used. I am not talking about what people put into their purses.  We can safely assume, since there are paintings of people taking coins from their purses, that they were sometimes used to hold money. I mean that we should try to understand how they wore their purses. What sort of options did they have?

Modernly, in most of the reenactment groups that I have seen, a purse is often hung directly from a belt. I have done this many times myself, and one of the problems is that if the purse is heavy it will tend to crease, roll, or fold the belt in an uncomfortable fashion. The physical abrasion of the purse cord can also damage the belt. We see lots of people in illuminations with all sorts of purses just hanging on strings or straps from their belts. But there is another solution, which also prevents the damage to your belt, and gives you yet another opportunity for bling. I am talking about purse hangers.

It is difficult to know how common purse hangers were in period, but a quick search in the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database reveals quite a few. I cast a couple of the most common forms of these hangers a couple of years ago. The first one that I cast was this one.


We see several versions of this form of purse hanger, some with, and some without the bar. These purse hangers were usually permanently attached to the belt with rivets. This graphic shows how this cast piece is used. The string of the pouch can simply be looped over the suspended metal frame.

purse hanger

Here is a link to an actual example of this type of purse hanger in the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Another common form of this hanger does not have the bar and uses two separate supports that are riveted to the belt, like this.

purse hanger two supports

The other form of purse hanger that I cast was this one.


Here is an example of a similar purse hanger from the Portable Antiquities Scheme,

This type of hanger was attached to the belt with a piece of the metal and rivets just as in the previous examples.

There are many other forms of purse hangers, from simple hooks like this one to hangers with much more complex shapes than the ones that I cast.

I think that purse hangers could be a fun addition to a fancy outfit, and casting a couple of other shaped purse hangers is definitely on my “to-do” list. I hope that this sampling of purse hangers inspires you to try adding one, or more, to your collection of accessories.

Purses Part 10: Time for Purse Frame Rings

Last time I put together the purse frame bar and pivot, so now it is time to add the purse frame rings.

First a confession – I am cheating by using 8 gauge bronze wire. I have seen purse frames, usually the lowest quality ones, that use plain old wire rings. I was faced purely with a time issue. With all of the events that I am currently doing there was simply no time to be able to cast the type of “chevron” shaped ring that I wanted to use, so that project will happen in the future.

Why is the chevron shape important for better quality purse rings? The previous “L” or “chevron” shaped purse rings that we looked at used part of the “L” to provide a location for holes to sew the bag of the purse to. Although this is an important benefit, it is possible to simply wrap the material of the bag around the ring and sew it in place. So why is the shape so important? Strength. A plain round wire will bend much more easily, even if it has been hammered to make it harder. The basic structure of an “L” shape makes the ring much more stiff and less susceptible to bending.

So back to my process. I looked at the purse frame from the Museum of London that had a surviving ring.

What I was looking for was the shape of the ring and the proportions of the ring to the purse bar. So I went in search of a round item that was the correct size. And here it is, a small paint can. The picture compares the can and purse bar to the picture of the purse frame at the Museum of London.

shaping the rings

Pretty darn close. So I wrapped the 8 gauge wire around the can and started forming the tabs that will go up to the purse bar. Here they are, fresh off of the paint can with the purse frame .

freshly bent wire rings

So now it was time to adjust the rings so that they actually nest inside of one another and the tabs don’t interfere with one another. A little work with a pair of pliers accomplished that, and then it was time to flatten the ends of the wire rings. Here they are in progress.

ends of tabs











Once they were flat enough I cleaned off the rough spots with a file. And checked the fit of the rings one more time.

nested rings with tabs


Almost perfect! One of the tabs on the inner ring is a little too long, so I re-trimmed it and filed it again. Then it was time to create the holes that would allow the rings to fit onto the purse frame bar. Mark the location of the holes with a punch, so that the drill bit will not slide around. Then drill the holes and smooth off any burrs with a file.

And what do we get when we put it together?

first ring fit on frame

We get something that looks a lot like a purse frame with rings. The fit is pretty close, just a little work with a pair of pliers will make it perfect.

Next Time: Finishing up the Frame

Purses Part 7: Back Down to Earth

Having looked at some of the truly amazing purse frames that were available as luxury goods in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, it is now time to come back down to earth and my original project to study and create replicas of original purse frames.

So, this is what I decided to start with.

My Purse frame with words

This is a picture of the actual artifact that I own. I have broken pieces of several purse frames, most of which are for considerably larger purses, but I decided to start small and simple. My goal with this purse was to replicate the actual frame of a real purse, without any of the preconceived notions or gaps in knowledge that I had on my last project. I also wanted to see if I could actually cast all of the pieces that they would have cast, instead of using a bunch of formed metal pieces. I wanted to create a purse frame that any middle class individual from western Europe would instantly recognize as a “normal” purse frame.

First let’s give a few facts about my purse frame. The frame was found by a metal detectorist in England. It is cast of bronze. The purse bar is 61 mm long (2 3/8 inches) and the pivot top is 13 mm across (about half an inch) and 22mm top to bottom (about 7/8 of an inch). It is a small purse, probably originally intended for coins. The pivot actually does spin around all the way on this purse frame. I am not certain what the advantage to this would be, but perhaps turning it with the front against you would make it more difficult for pick pockets to get into.

So how did I start on this project? First I spent quite a bit of time just looking at the frame. I wanted to understand how it was made.

Was it all cast? Yes, although it is possible that the washer at the bottom of the pivot was actually created from a heavy piece of plate bronze.

Were there any places that were soldered? How were the pieces held together? The answer to both of these questions is related. There is no detectable solder on the piece. The parts are all riveted together by peaning over the ends of the metal purse pieces.

How many pieces were there? What pieces appear to be missing? This is a difficult set of questions to answer. The surviving frame consists of three pieces: the purse bar, the pivot, and a washer on the bottom of the purse bar that helps keep the pivot in place while allowing the pivot to rotate. The bare ends of the purse bar show wear marks. There was originally at least one purse ring, and possibly two. There does not appear to have been a washer on the ends of the purse bar to help retain the purse frame rings, but it is possible that there was, and it didn’t leave a discernible mark.

Next Time: Where Do We Go From Here?