The term “purse” originally referred to a small bag for holding coins. In British English, it is still used to refer to a small coin bag. A “handbag” is a larger accessory that holds objects beyond currency, such as personal items. American English typically uses the terms purse and handbag interchangeably. The term handbag began appearing in the early 1900s. Initially, it was most often used to refer to men’s hand-luggage. Women’s bags grew larger and more complex during this period, and the term was attached to the accessory.
The verb “to handbag” derives from UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s habit of pulling scraps of paper out of her handbag in meetings and reading aloud the comments she had written on them. The verb’s more general meaning of “treating ruthlessly” came to symbolise Thatcher’s whole style of government. Julian Critchley, one of her biggest Tory backbench critics, once said, “Margaret Thatcher and her handbag is the same as Winston Churchill and his cigar.”
Early modern Europeans wore purses for one sole purpose: to carry coins. Purses were made of soft fabric or leather and were worn by men as often as ladies; the Scottish sporran is a survival of this custom. In the 17th century, young girls were taught embroidery as a necessary skill for marriage; this also helped them make very beautiful handbags. By the late 18th century, fashions in Europe were moving towards a slender shape for these accessories, inspired by the silhouettes of Ancient Greece and Rome. Women wanted purses that would not be bulky or untidy in appearance, so reticules were designed. Reticules were made of fine fabrics like silk and velvet, carried with wrist straps. First becoming popular in France, they crossed over into Britain, where they became known as “indispensables.” Men, however, did not adopt the trend. They used purses and pockets, which became popular in men’s trousers.