Ron Lora: Pockets, a nifty holiday gift

We don’t think much about pockets; they’re just part of the scene. But I never leave home without them, for they hold things like a wallet, keys, pen, eyeglasses, iPhone, and shopping list – if there’s room.

We might say that pockets provide temporary storage space for readily needed items, or for others that interest us. In my grandfather’s era, many farmers wore bib overalls whose utilitarian pockets frequently carried a pocket knife, a pocket watch, a pencil and certainly a handkerchief. Likely a ruler, too, if working on timber-framed structures.

One of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution in the nation’s capital is a display of what President Abraham Lincoln’s pockets contained on the night he was assassinated: two pairs of spectacles (one held together with a bit of string!), an ivory pocket knife, a watch fob but no watch, a five-dollar Confederate note, a pencil, a linen handkerchief and several newspaper clippings. Not made public until 1976, the exhibit was a public sensation.

In her captivating new book, “Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close,” Hannah Carlson, professor in art history at Rhode Island School of Design, reminds us just how recently pockets appeared. For millennia, people carried purses, satchels or cloth sacks, sometimes strapped over togas, tunics and gowns. In medieval times both men and women wore small pouches tied around their waists. However, half a millennia ago, men’s purses went out of fashion when the pocket was invented. Unlike female kangaroos, we weren’t born with them.

Carlson presents the pocket as one of “the biggest sartorial landmarks in the history of clothing,” its host of styles through the years becoming an important part of a garment’s design. At first, men benefited from them more than women, for they amounted to male privilege – “pocket sexism,” it might be called. Men made most decisions about property, carried the money and often insisted on approving family expenditures.

By the early 19th century, fashion had come to dominate women’s clothing, and pockets disappeared. Smooth high-waisted gowns didn’t permit disruptions in elegant patterns. As French fashion designer Christian Dior would later put it: “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.”

Nineteenth century writer and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton hated the idea that women were shortchanged on pockets. She observed women on streets with “one hand holding up a majestically sweeping skirt, the other clutching an umbrella, pocketbook and other small necessaries.” When she asked that one be added, her dressmaker replied that it “would bulge you out just awful.”

Men, meanwhile, gamboled about unencumbered. By the end of the century, little had changed. After a few dressmakers added one or two, The New York Times in 1899 could still accurately headline an article on the world’s use of pockets: “Men’s Clothes Full of Them, While Women Have But Few.”

In all forms other than as pure fashion statements, pockets involve hands to be of use, and exist even to hold them. However, Lillian Glass, a body-language expert, advises that “putting your hands in your pockets is one of the worst things to do if you want to appear confident.” And never do so during a job interview, for it might give the impression that you’re not being straight-forward.

Walt Whitman drew early criticism with his famous hand-in-pocket frontispiece to “Leaves of Grass.” Yet later viewers understood his pose (including the tipped hat and torso) as spontaneous, honest and self-assured, perhaps even defiant. In any case, hand and pocket relationships may signal much about individuals.

Though the 20th century would loosen old customs, even today “women’s pockets are decidedly smaller and less useful than men’s,” usually appearing as “an unessential extra,” writes Carlson. Women’s purses make a happy alternative to pockets, however, and have the advantage of holding more items.

Technology is fast rendering many old fashions passé; it’s possible that the future will value pockets less if we all have computers around our wrists and sport wearable electronics. Nevertheless, Carlson believes that pockets are valued enough that we’ll not soon give them up. With them at our side, she concludes, “we preserve some confidence that we can meet, or at least parry, any contingency.”

Check your own pockets today. What’s there?

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected]. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.