The Subject is Handbags

Size ... and Bags ... Matter

The subject is handbags

It started with an email and two simple questions. I thought I’d get a few short replies. Instead, all week long, my inbox was flooded with replies. Clearly, I had touched a nerve. The subject of my query? Handbags.

What word do you use to describe the bag you carry and what size do you prefer, large or small?

I sent the message to a handful of gal pals and family members in an email entitled “writing help,” thinking maybe a few would reply. I was wrong.

To my amazement, I received more emails in one week than I’d ever received before! I read recollections of grandmothers and mothers long gone and tales of bag bargain hunting in Shanghai; received messages loaded with heart emojis, smiley face emojis, and, of course, handbag emojis, and got replies from three countries – four if you count the US.

I and I Alone Say Pocketbook

The first lesson learned was painful.

I am the only female under the age of 93 who still uses the word “pocketbook.” I thought the term was oh, so New York City – and therefore, oh, so sophisticated. While right about the once-upon-a-time East Coast usage, I’m wrong about the sophisticated part. Instead, I am, as I have been informed by virtually every single friend and relation, just pathetically old-fashioned. Or as my beloved niece, Leesa declared, “You are the only person I know who uses the word pocketbook.” (A-hum, who changed whose diaper?)

Handbags, Purses, and Everything Else

As for the “official” correct word, well, that – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder/user.

In the business world, my dear friend Sudha, who’s a global retail maven, says the go-to term is handbag. Let’s hand it to Sudha, for this is a word we can all endorse and carry to the cash register and beyond.

Most women say purse, but personally, I purse my lips at this term. It seems too fussy and demure for the behemoths most linebackers and ladies lug around. I think of a purse as something for evening wear, something slinky, and small, barely big enough for lipstick and a smartphone, and sadly, not large enough for a middle-aged muddler’s reading glasses.

One girlfriend in the small bag camp carries a “wristlette.” Now, I know for a fact that Diane and I graduated the same year from high school, but this term makes her more old-fashioned that pocketbook-ed me!

Handy handbag synonyms abound. They include pouch, wallet, and, without resorting to ridicule, “reticule.” Also, available in a clutch, is indeed the word “clutch.” – handy perhaps should you wish to go Dutch!

The “Bigs”

Based on email replies, I also learned – drumroll, please – size matters! Most women prefer big, yes, big-enough-for-the-kitchen-sink big bags. Only a few of us, deferring to our aging bad backs and aching shoulders, affirm a preference for small bags. But the overwhelming majority throw good posture to the wind and lurch to the side (right or left) in favor of those bad boy “bigs” and their meaty cousins – tote bags, backpacks, and briefcases.

In the Bag

And what do the “bigs” haul around? Self-conscious kitchen sink jokes aside, my friends fess up to carrying “medicine, Band-Aids, eyelash curler, ChapStick, pens, that kind of thing). Plus sunglasses, wallet, headphones, tissues, probably a phone charger. Oh, and probably space for a layer or two because we live in the Bay!” (Thanks for that detailed inventory, Kate H.)

Some “bigs” (like Kate) even admit to carrying smaller bags – “like a toiletry bag” – within their large bags!

Queen Dorothy

Starting from about the age of three, women begin to carry bags everywhere. My mother, Queen Dorothy as she was known to her devoted subjects, was the Imelda Marcos of pocketbooks (yes, pocketbooks!). She had them in every style, size and material – silk, leather, feather, beaded. They matched her shoes, her wardrobe, her mood, and season. She carried then even on trips to the hospital. And inside her handbag was always lipstick, her wallet, and an embroidered handkerchief. My mother was a lady. No doubt about it. When she died, we included a pocketbook in her final wardrobe. There was no way we could have done otherwise.

Hiking in the Galapagos, Purse Included

And from my always chic friend Pat S. comes this epic martial tale of her attempt to explain to her husband Dick the need for a purse while hiking the volcanic paths of an island in the Galapagos:

“Dick couldn’t understand why I needed it, explaining in only a way a Man can, that all I needed was my ID (in case I fell down a crevasse and disappeared until the following spring – or was disfigured beyond recognition – actually, I made that up) and my phone to take photos.

“As I explained, as only a Woman can explain, that I needed something to contain my phone since I don’t wear anything with deep pockets and I was using hiking poles. And that I or my fellow travelers might need in an emergency any of the following: lip gloss, lipstick and eyeliner; sunblock; Kleenex; Ibuprofen; tums; chewing gum and throat lozenges (two types); toothpicks; business cards; Band-Aids; credit cards; cash; laundry receipts; pens; paperclips; two pairs of reading glasses; extra sunglasses.”

Pat prevailed, of course, and carried the purse. As she noted, “I am always prepared.”


Clearly, there’s a lot of baggage associated with our bags, why we carry them and what we carry in them. Next week hear directly from The Ladies Who Schlep – my gal pals who responded to my email for comments. Read their charming unfiltered stories and comments in “Part II: The Subject is Handbags.”


Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a quick history of handbags, here’s one.

2 replies
  1. marymooney
    marymooney says:

    I’m late to the table on this one, but you might be the only woman who says pocketbook, but rest assured, my husband, Himself says it all the time. He is from the east, too. I must have a purse with a lot of zippers to contain all of my crap in designated areas. It also has to have a strap that can adjust long enough to cross over my shoulder so I don’t strain my back or wonky elbows carrying the damned thing. The only make up I carry are several shades of lipstick. When I send Himself into a new purse to get something I have to describe which zipper compartment it is in. It’s like giving coordinates for military action. FYI-My car is about as jammed as my purse with various sundries so he calls it “an extension of your pocketbook.” Great post!


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