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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.