This extremely rare antique bag from an English dealer near Cambridge is sure to be a star in any handbag collection. I date it to the 1860s or 1870s, based on a confluence of factors. First off, its frame and chain are splendid examples of the earliest craftsmanship in plastic - so early, in fact, that there's no clasp! Thus, the custom of attaching purse chains diagonally to both sides was born for security (and continued into the Edwardian era, long after clasps became quite good). Another fascinating quirk is that a teensy screw fits through one side of the frame - for an unknown cause, since there are no other holes or hardware. (If you have any clue as to why that's there, please tell me!)
While I'm no authority on plastics, the style of this bag suggests the substance may well be the very first man-made plastic: Parkesine, unveiled by Alexander Parkes at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. An organic material derived from cellulose, it could be heated and molded, carved and even made transparent. However, it cost a lot to make and Parkes' investors soon pulled out. The search for an affordable faux-ivory tough enough to use as billiard balls continued and an American came up with celluloid (the first thermoplastic) around 1870. The next major advance was Bakelite in 1907 - *much* too late an invention to be what we see here.
Another thing that helps us date the bag is that Prince Albert died in 1862 and the Queen's deep mourning was widely emulated by other widows and the nation at large. This is clearly a mourning bag made for personal use, intended to be as fine a creation as an amateur could manage. The black fabric hand-stitched to its frame was lavishly hand-beaded with black and clear crystals in a starlike pattern often seen in old quilts. It's been cared for beautifully, too. One small hole seems to have been repaired long ago on the back (so well it's difficult to notice) and absolutely no other flaws are evident to me.
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