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 11: Finishing Up the Frame

Last time I created eight gauge bronze wire wire purse frame rings and fitted them to the purse frame, but now we have to hold it all together.

When I was doing my original research I noticed a number of purse frames that appeared to have some sort of washer on the end of the purse frame bars. I decided that I liked the look of the washer and that the washer would also make for a more secure anchor for the rings on the purse bar. So when I was creating the original waxes from the replica, I also created some round washers that I thought would look good on the purse bar. I admit I guessed at the size, based on the size of the purse, but when the time came to actually use them, they were the right size. Here is a quick picture of some of my original cast pieces, including the washers.


So I fitted the washers on to the purse bar, trimming the length of the purse bar end and smoothing it, and then riveted it together. And here is the result.


The look of the washer was the perfect finishing touch for the frame.

What I learned from the Riveting process. No matter how careful you are measuring and hammering, it doesn’t always work the way you want it to. I broke one pivot trying to rivet it, and I also broke a hexagonal washer by accidentally cracking it – the casting actually had a tiny crack in it that I did not notice. Having a hole in the washer that is too tight can also cause the washer to crack when it is riveted. The pivot will expand a little bit, and too much expansion can crack the washer. And then there is the purse bar itself. Yes, I broke one of those, too.


So where do I go from here? I will be working to fine tune the purse bar pieces. For a first try they are fairly close, but I will be modifying the pieces to make them a tiny bit sturdier, and I also want to improve the fit a little. Once I am pleased with the final look of the purse frame, I will be recasting it, and then I will be experimenting with casting purse frame rings. I really want to have the strength and stability of the “L” shaped purse ring and the ability to easily sew the purse bag onto the frame. And then what? I have a much larger broken purse frame bar that I think would make a really awesome larger purse…

Next time: How were purses used in period?

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