- Women’s Pockets and the Construction of Privacy in the Long Eighteenth Century
Although eighteenth-century women were increasingly in charge of running the house, the domestic interior afforded them very little actual privacy.1 Having a locked writing desk, let alone a room of one’s own, was a luxury that few eighteenth century women enjoyed.2 Yet, from the end of the seventeenth [End Page 307] century, every woman, regardless of her rank or status, had one or several pairs of tie-on pockets, which were detachable items of clothing rather like bags worn under a woman’s skirt and accessed through slits in her overdress.3 Often hand-made by women from remnants of fabric and allowing them to keep at hand all the instruments needed for needlework, they encapsulated, in their making and use, the domestic role of women as keepers of the house. But they also allowed women to go out of the domestic interior and, as one of the few places women could call their own, pockets were key to their experience of privacy. The artifacts not only enable us to address the question of women’s relationship to the interior but also the construction of female interiority.
In this essay, I will look at the way this apparently trivial object can help us to understand how a complex notion like privacy was mediated and constructed at a given time in history.4 [End Page 308] I do not claim that women’s privacy entirely rested or depended on pockets in the eighteenth century but, while embracing a material culture approach, I suggest that discussions of privacy cannot be founded on a purely textual-based account of interiority.5 In the eighteenth century, material literacy was more widespread than textual literacy; objects, the practices they lent themselves to, and their associated meanings were accessible to a larger section of the population than the texts which have tended to shape our understanding of privacy in the eighteenth century.6 Inherent to this approach is the problem that commonplace objects are sometimes so ordinary that disappointingly little attention is paid to them in the sources that habitually serve cultural history, [End Page 309] such as textual and iconographical documents, where they are often only incidentally mentioned or commented upon.7 Yet, the very triviality of the pocket and the fact that it was an accessory that the gentlewoman, the servant, and the poor labourer all possessed, albeit in various materials and qualities, make it a particularly apt instrument to address female privacy across all ranks and classes in the eighteenth century.
Moreover, instead of reifying privacy, pockets enable us to embrace the contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of the notion. Indeed, privacy is an elusive notion that is linked but not equivalent to a series of related categories such as the private sphere, intimacy, secrecy, interiority, and subjectivity. Anthropologist Morton H. Levine defines privacy as: “the main tenance of a personal life-space within which the individual has a chance to be an individual, to exercise and experience his own uniqueness.”8 But privacy does not mean solipsism or shutting off the outside world, Arnold Simmel insists: “we become what we are not only by establishing boundaries about ourselves but also by a periodic opening of these boundaries to nourishment, to learning and to intimacy.”9 Privacy, then, is not to be equated with the interior or solipsistic subjectivity but involves a dialectical relationship between interior and exterior, between self and other.10
In their complex uses, pockets comprise thresholds that articulate these relationships between interior and exterior, secrecy and [End Page 310] disclosure, self and other. The liminal quality of pockets thus makes them a heuristic tool to interrogate privacy, and challenge some of the conventional ideas one might have about the links between women and the domestic interior, between secrecy and privacy, or between subjects and objects.
Pockets, Women, and the Domestic Interior
In Eighteen Maxims of Neatness and Order, a small volume book published at the end of the long eighteenth century and dedicated to teaching young girls a key element of “the foundations of those feelings and habits...