The Pocket Housewife

No, this is not the married version of the "pocket venus" who makes her small but mighty appearance in the occasional Regency novel. Yet both terms did have their origins in the mid-eighteenth century. However, though "pocket venus" was a term for a beautiful, curvaceous woman of small stature, the housewife to be discussed here was, and is, even today, extremely useful and can be quite lovely, but is not human at all. This small item found favor with both women and men during the Regency.

Recently, Charles Bazalgette published a brief article on his blog, Prinny’s Taylor, about an item which was supplied to the Prince of Wales’ household by his ancestor, Louis Bazalgette, who was tailor to the Prince for thirty-two years. This item, "a striped silk Housewife," is described as being filled with various sewing notions and intended for the use of the Prince’s pages. Mr. Bazalgette was not quite sure what this item actually was, and I realized that there are probably many others who might not be familiar with these "housewives," and how they were made and used during the Regency.

According to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "housewife" was used in print for the first time, in 1749, to refer to a sewing kit. But housewife was not the only term used for such sewing kits. They were also known as huswife, hussive, or, most commonly, hussif, which appears to be the contraction of the word "housewife" in the dialect of the shire of Lancaster. It is possible that these pocket sewing kits originated there, but no definitive evidence has yet been found to substantiate that supposition. By the beginning of the Regency, hussif was the term most often used to refer to these small pocket sewing kits by nearly everyone, though pronunciation of the word would vary from region to region across Britain.

There was no specific or standard pattern or design for a Regency hussif, as each was made by hand, with whatever materials its maker had available to them, in the size and shape which suited them. However, in most cases, a hussif was constructed on a base of a length of study cloth, to which would be stitched a series of small pockets across its width. The base cloth was most likely to be a medium to heavyweight, evenly woven linen. The linen would be cut to approximately six to eight inches wide, and could be as much as twenty-four inches long, though twelve to eighteen inches was more common. In most hussifs, one end of this cloth would be rounded, while the other end would be left square. The pockets to be sewn to this base cloth might also have been linen, but they could just as easily have been printed cottons or even silk brocade. The pockets might all be cut from one piece of cloth, or, each pocket could be cut from a different piece of cloth. Beginning at the square end of the base cloth, the first pocket would be stitched to it, with the opening toward the rounded end. Above that would be stitched the next pocket, and so on, until the base cloth was covered with pockets, with the opening of the final pocket level with the bottom of the rounded edge. In most cases, a backing cloth would be cut to cover the base cloth on the opposite side from the pockets, and the raw edges would be bound with a matching or contrasting color, leaving a length of the binding as a cord which could then be used to secure the hussif when it was rolled up. At the blog, Dances with Wools, you will find a post which provides illustrated instructions on how to make a hussif in the eighteenth-century style. Regency hussifs would have been very similar.

Many people had a hussif in their pocket during the Regency. Most soldiers and sailors included a hussif in their gear, oftentimes a gift from their mother, sister, sweetheart or wife. Hussifs made for men tended to be constructed of very sturdy fabrics, usually linen throughout, as linen would stand up better to heavy usage than would cottons or silks. Not to mention that few men would care to be seen using a hussif covered with flowers or other feminine motifs and/or colors. But if their hussif was a gift from a needlewoman in their life, they might find their initials or some other distinctive monogram embroidered on the inside of the rounded flap. Hussifs for soldiers tended to be smaller than a woman might make for herself. Inside would be found a selection of replacement buttons, for both the soldier’s uniforms and his civilian clothes, a packet of needles, a paper of pins, usually a thimble, and a notched length of wood or cardboard with a selection of threads wrapped around it in the notched sections. A small pair of scissors might also be included, though this was less common, as many soldiers carried a pocket knife which would serve the purpose of cutting threads. All of these items would be placed in the pockets of the hussif, then it would be rolled up, tied shut and slipped into the soldier’s pocket or his haversack. A recreation of a soldier’s hussif, or housewife, can be seen here. It should be noted that few senior officers would be likely to carry their own hussif, unless it had been made by someone very dear to them. They would expect their batman to have provided himself with one as part of the gear they carried to keep the officer properly turned out. There are a very few hussifs which survive from the early nineteenth century which are made of leather and appear to have been made for military use, but they are quite rare. The majority of hussifs used by soldiers and sailors during the Regency were made of cloth, most commonly linen, though there are a few survivors made of wool. By the mid-nineteenth century, hussifs were rather more likely to be made of leather than they had been earlier in the century, but that occurred most often in America. Armies and navies from Britain to Australia to North America issued hussifs as part of the standard kit to their serving troops, at least up to the Korean War era. The British Army continued to do so well into the 1960s.

A country housewife might have made herself a hussif as plain and functional as that made for a soldier or a sailer. She would be likely to have only one hussif, perhaps rather large, in which she kept her most important sewing notions. In the country these notions might have been expensive and difficult to come by and would have been equally hard to replace, so she would be sure to take good care of them. She would certainly have had needles and pins, a thimble, a darning egg, a measuring tape, a bodkin or stiletto and a selection of thread winders to hold her thread. She would have been unlikely to carry this hussif in her pocket, more probably she would have kept it in her workbag, reaching for it whenever she had mending or sewing to do. These more utilitarian hussifs were most often made of linen or wool or a combination of the two. Yet, even if she had made her hussif of plain fabric, this housewife might have taken the time to embellish it with a bit of embroidery, perhaps a sprinkling of her favorite flowers, and quite probably her initials, so she could identify it as her own, should she have had occasion to use it in company with other women, sewing together.

An aristocratic lady, on the other hand, might have had a selection of hussifs, all for different purposes. For example, she might have had a large hussif in which she kept the majority of her sewing notions along which her embroidery supplies. This might have been heavily embellished, especially if she used it regularly in company while plying her needle, perhaps in the drawing room of an evening. Though of modern construction, this hussif has the kind of embellishment which might have been seen on one a Regency lady might use for her embroidery supplies and notions. Such a lady might have had a separate hussif, perhaps embellished with lace and silk ribbon embroidery, like this one, in which she stored her tatting shuttle and thread, or her tambour hook. Many a Regency lady, even if she was not a needleworker, might have had one or two small hussifs, perhaps about this size, which would have fit conveniently in her reticule when she went out for the evening. Inside this small hussif she might have had a needle or two, a few pins, maybe a button or two which were mates to those on the gown she wore and a thread winder wrapped with a length or two of thread which also matched her dress. But unlike the country housewife, whose thread winders were most likely to have been made of wood, this aristocratic lady might very well have had a carved mother of pearl thread winder in her pretty little hussif. Many of these "evening hussifs" were so small they could not accommodate a thimble or a pair of scissors. But this was not really necessary, since if the lady were to suffer a mishap to her gown while at a ball or rout, in most cases, the hostess would send for her own abigail to make the needed repairs. Thus, the most important contents of this small and elegant hussif were the buttons and thread it contained which matched her gown. The abigail could easily have supplied the thimble and scissors, or even a needle and pins, if need be. But this same lady might have had a second, slightly larger evening hussif, into which she could put a thimble and a pair of scissors. She might have used this hussif when she attended the theatre or the opera, where there would be no hostess available to offer a skilled abigail with a pair of scissors and a thimble at hand. [Author’s Note: The hussif photographs to which I have provided links in the paragraph above are all of modern materials and construction, but the embellishments used are very similar to those which would have been used during the Regency. However, during the Regency such embellishments would typically have been used rather more sparingly.]

The decorative hussifs which were carried by ladies of the ton might be constructed on a linen base cloth, but it is unlikely they would have had linen exteriors. These hussifs might be covered with silk brocades, damasks or moires, exotic Indian chintzes, French printed cottons or fine muslins. The more refined hussifs intended for the use of ladies could have been embellished with embroidery using either silk or cotton threads, silk ribbon embroidery, lace edgings, or cut lace motifs. Beads or decorative buttons might also have been stitched to the hussif covers to add additional sparkle. Many aristocratic ladies were accomplished needlewomen, and many of them quite probably made and embellished their own hussifs. However, these ladies would also have had the means to purchase a hussif, if they did not have the time or inclination to make one for themselves, of if they had need of one quickly, perhaps for a gift. Dressmakers and modistes might make them for special customers, or may have simply made a selection for sale in their shops from the remnants of the fabrics from which their fetching gowns were cut. Talented needlewomen of limited means, for example, a seamstress who worked for a fashionable modiste, could make hussifs of scraps of dressmaking fabrics, then embellish them with embroidery, lace, beads and/or buttons. These hussifs could then be sold to haberdashers and other shops which offered notions and personal items for society ladies. There would be less demand for such ornate hussifs in rural areas, where there would be fewer potential customers, but in the larger cities, a skillful needlewoman would be able to supplement a meagre income by making decorative hussifs for the gentry in her spare time.

The hussif was nearly ubiquitous in the pockets, reticules and haversacks of those who lived during the Regency. Sailors and soldiers, country housewives and aristocratic ladies might all carry one. We know that Louis Bazalgette supplied them to the pages who worked for the Prince of Wales. These many hussifs could be plain and simple, made of linen or wool, or they could be highly decorative, made of rich silks and fine cottons, elegantly embellished with lace and embroidery. Many women made them for the men in their lives, especially those who might be going to sea or off to war. What messages of love and affection might each of these women have embroidered inside the hussif they made for their sweetheart or husband? Might they also have included a poem or prayer on a folded bit of paper, tucked inside one of the pockets, to be discovered when their dear one was far from home? Perhaps a young lady is desperately in love with a young gentleman who returns her regard, but of whom her parents do not approve. Before his regiment sails off to the Peninsula, he gives her a ring, plighting their troth in secret, with the intention they will marry upon his return. A hussif might easily solve a dilemma for this young lady. She dare not allow the ring to be seen by anyone, but she can not bear to be parted from it. She could tuck it into one of the pockets of her hussif, or even make herself a hussif with a small, hidden pocket in which she could secrete the ring. Even if her mother or her abigail should peek inside the young woman’s hussif, it is very unlikely they would find her treasured betrothal ring. What else might be hidden within the pockets of a hussif? There are any number of ways in which a hussif could be made to serve the cause of romance by a clever Regency author. I look forward to reading about hussifs in Regency novels yet to be written.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Apparel & Grooming and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Pocket Housewife

  1. As always you provide some of the most informative and interesting articles and insights into Regency Romance era history available online. Your blog is always a joy to read.
    Thanks,
    Teresa

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you, both for stopping by and for your kind words.

      I must admit, I very much enjoyed writing this article, as I am an avid needlewoman myself. It was a treat for me to write at the intersection of Regency history and textile history.

      In addition, I would like to thank Charles Bazalgette, who is so diligently working on the biography of his ancestor, Louis Bazalgette, tailor to the Prince of Wales. His post about the “housewife” made for Prinny’s pages reminded me that things I take for granted might not be generally known in the wider world. Don’t forget Prinny’s Taylor when you are surfing the web for Regency details.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Kat,
    Firstly, thank you for pointing out to me, a mere ham-fisted male in the sewing department, what the ‘housewife’ actually was. Then this splendidly detailed article giving such insight into all aspects of ‘running repairs’ to clothing. Finally, your kind words on my blog. Many thanks indeed, dear Madam.
    I tend to think of Prinny losing buttons or ripping his coat during drunken horseplay with his rakish friends. I wonder why.
    Best,
    Charles

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, now, do not discount your sewing skills because of your gender! Most sailors carried a hussif, and often they prefered that “housewife” to the real thing. Most of them felt they were much better at sewing than the women they knew. ;-)

      I suspect you are right about Prinny. There were probably at least a few lost buttons and split seams after a rousing evening with his friends.

      Your blog is a fascinating source of information on a nearly unknown aspect of Regency history. I would be doing my readers a disservice not to make it known to them.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Funny, Louis’ eldest son (my ggggfr) became a naval officer. No doubt he learned to sew, from his father of course, before he went to sea (at the age of twelve). Probably a family joke: “Sailors sew sails and tailors sew – tails”.

    I have been known to sew on a button or make a crude repair. I learnt at an early age, from my stepmother, as well as how to cook AND do the washing up too…
    My wife doesn’t seem to mind!

    Thanks for your help and encouragement, as always, Kat. And what seems to be an encyclopedic knowledge of the period.

  4. Pingback: The Reticule, or The Lady’s Pocket Exposed | The Regency Redingote

  5. Lisa DeKalb says:

    I respectfully request permission to reprint this blog in a newsletter for the Atlanta Smocking Guild. I found your article educational and most interesting. Many thanks!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your interest in my article. I am glad you found it informative.

      I would prefer that you not copy the whole article, as I often update articles here when I come upon new information. I cannot update copies of articles over which I have no control. However, you are welcome to copy the first couple of paragraphs with a link back to the main article here, if that will suit your purposes.

      Regards,
      Kat

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  8. Bernadette Ross says:

    My father was a Royal Marine during WW2 and for many years afterwards. He had a navy blue ‘Housewife’. The only things I can remember being in it was his darning mushroom, which unscrewed, darning wool and needles. My father taught me to darn.

  9. Brian says:

    I served as a Rifleman in the RGJ during the Cold War. Our kitlist included a hussif but everybody (mostly from the south) called it a housewife.

    I get strange looks from people when these days I repair a lost button at my desk using my “houswife”.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you so much for sharing that enlightening snippet of history; proof the hussif did survive in army kits well into the twentieth century, and that it was used, by at least some of the soldiers. And in such a storied unit as the Royal Green Jackets. For those who may not know, this is the infantry regiment into which The Rifle Brigade/95th Rifles (the regiment of the fictional Richard Sharpe) of the Napoleon Wars has descended.

      Since the term “hussif” seems to have been used primarily in the north of England, it makes sense that those from the south might use the term “housewife,” which would be more appropriate to the southern dialects. Most people tend to speak in the dialect and speech patterns which they learned as they grew up.

      I am not surprised that you got strange looks from anyone watching you stitch on a button. Most people these days do not know how to mend garments, even just to sew on a button. The percentage of men in that minority must be very low. I am sure it did them all good to see it done. Perhaps they were jealous of your skill and your hussif! ;-)

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your memories!

      Regards,

      Kat

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