The Social Advantage of Pockets

Who can use a pocket, and what it can carry, has historically depended on the person doing the pocketing. An Object Lesson.

Hine / Library of Congress

“He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out of his pocket,” Diamond Reynolds explains in a Facebook Live video taken just minutes after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot by police during a traffic stop. Castile had reached for his pockets, where he also had a gun that he was licensed to carry.

“He keeps his wallet in his pocket,” Reynolds tells us.

After shooting Castile, the officers insist that Reynolds “keep [her] hands where they are. … Keep ’em up, keep ’em up!” Her phone is thrown down. With her arms raised in the air, Reynolds asks: “Could you please get my phone for me?” Her 4-year-old daughter says to the officer, “I want to get my mommy’s purse.”

This incident, from July, followed two years of heightened police brutality against black people. Reynolds’s call for a public witnessing of her boyfriend’s death raised even more questions about the ways criminal justice remains entangled with systemic racism. But beyond documenting a violent encounter, Reynolds’s video also reveals the pocket as a key actor. With their persistent demand that hands be “kept up,” the police fear what rests in Castile and Reynolds’s pockets and strip them of their belongings.

Castile’s killing asks a question: Who is allowed a pocket, and what can one carry?

* * *

Derived from the Anglo-Norman poket, meaning “little bag,” the pocket is an object built solely to contain other objects. It first emerged in the late 17th century when it replaced the reticule, a small, embroidered bag closed with a drawstring. Although men’s pockets have remained relatively stable over time, women’s pockets have undergone a number of transformations. Pockets of the 1780s looked much different than they do today. Easily detachable, they were tied around the waist and worn under aprons, skirts, and petticoats—hence why Lucy Locket lost her pocket. Pockets allowed women to move beyond the boundaries of the home.

The cumbersome pockets of the 18th century were large enough to hold a range of curious items: pencils, chestnuts, corkscrews, needles, buttons, handkerchiefs, scissors, knives, lumps of sugar, flasks, and—as in the case of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 Pamela—“above forty sheets of paper, and a dozen pens, and a little phial of ink … and some wax and wafers.” By the mid-19th century, pocket-sized objects had multiplied: pocket almanacs, pocket calendars, medical pocket-books, and pocket maps, which made for easy transport of items that were previously too large for carrying. Women were also likely to keep pocket diaries, which they could access quickly to jot down daily occurrences or observations.

By the 1850s, when clothing was becoming more tightly-fitted, pockets began to be sewn into garments. No longer independent of their wearer’s clothing, they were less susceptible to being lost or stolen. To make up for lost carrying space, handbags, shoulder bags, and backpacks, now hold the majority of women’s possessions. Recent news coverage on the pocket refers to the general absence of women’s pockets and hence the gender politics of women’s dress.

In mid-March, I sent a text asking friends and family a simple question: “What’s in your pockets?”  Many responses were predictable: wallets, various forms of ID, house and car keys, loose change, shopping lists, subway tokens, bus tickets, sticks of gum, Starbucks and ATM receipts, and a host of loyalty cards. The contents of some pockets depended on their wearers’ occupation. A friend who is a resident at a Philly hospital had trauma shears, a reflex hammer, and an antibiotic guide tucked into her scrubs; and another friend, now a dental student in California, carried a denture toothbrush, a two-sided colored pencil, a small spatula, and some extra plastic teeth.

The long lists I’ve compiled featuring the contents of friends’ pockets—which range from golf tees and bobby pins to used tissues and granola bar crumbs—are now a congenial mix of lost items, salvaged for sake of this essay. In his 1975 poem “Pockets,” Howard Nemerov envisions pockets as “dark places,” which function as a kind of “thieves’ kitchen for the things / Sequestered from the world / For long or little while.”  He writes:

For all they locate close to lust,

No pocket ever sees another;

There is in fact a certain sadness

To pockets, going in their lonesome ways

And snuffling up their sifting storms

Of dust, tobacco bits and lint.

If pockets are lonely, as Nemerov notes, they tell stories of dispossession. The 18th-century historian Arianne Fennetaux has called pockets an object for everyone—gentlemen and women, laborers and servants alike. And yet, despite the seeming ubiquity of pockets, these small folds of fabric are more readily available to some people than they are others. Although private interiors, pockets allow their wearers a certain mobility, a capacity to move in public space. To be considered a physically and economically able subject, one must be free to carry his or her objects from place to place. Whereas the absent or empty pocket signifies depravation, the stuffed pocket suggests social entitlement and advantage.

In Kenneth Grahame’s popular 1908 children’s tale The Wind in the Willows, the self-important Toad is notorious for his “well-lined” pockets and love of motorcars. But when Toad slyly escapes his imprisonment by dressing as the jail’s washerwoman, he finds himself pocket-less: “To his horror he recollected that he had left both coat and waistcoat behind him in his cell … all that makes life worth living, all that distinguishes the many-pocketed animal, the lord of creation, from the inferior one-pocketed or no-pocketed productions that hop or trip about permissively, unequipped for the real contest.”

Despite his slick jailbreak, the disquieting shift from a coat with pockets to a dress without them disrupts Toad’s sense of self. Toad realizes that he has no money to purchase a train ticket to expedite his escape back to Toad Hall. Grahame’s famous fable reveals that to be “the many pocketed animal” is to achieve freedom in all its forms.

* * *

The past 250 years reveal great disparities in the treatments of pockets as useful or suspect depending on who is wearing them. The racial politics of pockets extend back to the 19th century, when advertisements for runaway slaves littered local papers. The notices often included extensive descriptions of slaves’ clothing, which functioned as identifying markers. In 1809, Wodesboro resident John Jennings placed a run-away ad in North Carolina’s The Star for “a bright mulatto fellow by the name of Ralph.” Jennings writes, “He had on when he left me cotton clothes, except his coat, which … has a pocket on the inside of the left lapel. … I expect he will attempt to pass for a free man.”

The advertisement frames pockets as central to Ralph’s escape because they allow him to pass as free. (Even the small illustration coupled with the ad—a man with a bindle—suggests that freedom means being able to carry one’s possessions; the unknown items hitched on a stick enable the slave’s quick escape). If pockets equate privilege, slaves—understood as property—were not meant to have pockets of their own.

In 2014, Brandon McKean was stopped by police for having “[his] hands in [his] pockets,” despite freezing weather. That same year, it was determined that 12-year-old Tamir Rice had his hands tucked in his pockets prior to being shot by police. Freddie Grey is said to have had “a knife clipped to the inside of his right pants pocket” before he was killed. Alton Sterling was shot outside a convenience store when officers noticed the tip of a gun peering outside his pocket, which caused them to fire.

Pockets help determine who gets power and who is deprived of it. If “to pocket” means to put away, the pocket emerges as a site of both preservation and defeat. To trace who has pockets and who is denied them makes us consider to what extent being a subject means having things, and being able to access them.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.