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The Things We Carry With Us

May 1, 2011

Queen Elizabeth with her purseOne of the things I noticed amidst all the media coverage of recent events in England was that Queen Elizabeth – however, whenever, and wherever photographed –always carries a purse (usually black, occasionally white; silver or gold if she’s dressed in full regalia), and I couldn’t help but wonder “Why does the Queen of England need a purse?” Surely one of her ladies-in-waiting and/or her bodyguards could carry her lipstick and face powder for her, pass her a tissue if she needed one, or produce a comb should she, perchance, remove her also-ever-present and always colour-coordinated hat and need a spot of freshening up. 

And that led me to another (not-so-surprising) follow-up question, “What does the Queen carry in her purse?”  Not being a regular royal follower, I didn’t realize that there has actually been a book published on that very subject (What’s in the Queen’s Handbag, and other Royal Secrets), and that people have speculated for years about such things.  So for those of you who, like me, are dying to know the answers to these pressing questions, here they are:

Is the Queen Bored?The Queen owns over 200 purses, all custom-made by Launer’s of London.  She carries a purse with her at all times – even from room to room inside Buckingham Palace (and her other residences); desks and tables in most rooms are fitted with hooks for her to hang it on (she also carries an ‘S’ shaped hook in her purse to use if a pre-fitted one is not available, and for use at public functions). The Queen uses her purse as a signalling device: left arm = ‘everything’s fine’; right arm = ‘I’m ready to move on’; on the dining table = ‘dinner’s over in five minutes’; on the floor = ‘I’m bored’.

The Queen at RIMAs to the contents, here’s a brief rundown (from various sources): a silver make-up case (a wedding gift from Prince Philip), a comb, a handkerchief, lipstick, various good luck charms (primarily equestrian-related and mostly gifts from her children), family photos, mints, doggie treats for her Corgis, and a crossword or two (snipped from the paper by members of her staff).  She does not carry cheques, credit cards, car keys, or a passport (she doesn’t have one); she only carries cash (denomination unknown) on Sundays, for the collection plate at church.  Apparently she has recently started carrying a cell phone (the special edition BlackBerry she was given at a recent tour of the RIM facilities in nearby Waterloo, Ontario, perhaps?) and – space permitting – a digital camera for taking personal photos.

My curiosity about the Queen’s purse satisfied, I began to wonder what the contents of our (women’s) purses or (men’s) pockets/wallets might say about the rest of us.

My Gorilla PurseI carry a fairly small purse (its purplish – my favourite colour – and has a fuzzy little gorilla dangling from it), and there’s not much inside (compared to when I was a ‘working woman with all related paraphernalia’ or a ‘mother who carries half the world with her in case one of the children is bored, wants a snack, or needs to be changed’).  I have the usual things, I suppose – cell phone, identification, debit and credit and rewards cards, comb and mirror, lip balm (I don’t wear lipstick), headache pills, bandages, paper and coin currency, spare house and car keys, a Swiss-army knife (it has come in handy on several occasions), and a tiny notebook and two pens (the writer in me needs to be able to jot things down as I think of them).  Perhaps this is the purse of a ‘minimalist writer’.

I often tease my husband about the ritualistic transfer of his ‘pocket ballast’ as he changes from his ‘work’ clothes to his ‘weekend’ clothes.  From his front pants pockets he moves  two sets of keys (one on each side), a few dollars in loose change, a small pocket knife, and a ‘worry rock’ that I gave him early in our relationship; his wallet (containing identification, credit and debit cards, several business cards – his and others, receipts for things he bought years ago, and several scraps of paper of unknown origin, but usually no cash) goes in his back right pocket; his cigarettes and glasses are resettled in the two front pockets of his shirt (together with a pen for ‘work’ and a screwdriver on weekends). I suppose I would label him as something of a ‘habitual keeper’ (the things he carries with him are things he ‘needs’, or – at the very least – things he doesn’t want to be caught without).

I decided to take this experiment a little further, so I asked a few family members, a couple of friends, and several people in the Tim Horton’s line-up at the mall (in exchange for their cooperation, I offered to pay for their coffee) if I could take a look at the items they carried with them, and talk to them about what they thought the contents of their pockets or purses said about them.  NOTE: the oldest person who participated was my 93 year old mother; the youngest was a 17 year old girl at the mall.  I should add here that EVERY SINGLE ONE of them found things in their purses or pockets/ wallets that they didn’t even know they had!!

Typical Purse ContentsThe most ubiquitous items were what you would expect – identification, debit, credit and rewards cards (one woman had a total of 24 plastic cards in her wallet), cash (paper and coins), and keys (primarily dwelling and/or car).  Only three people did NOT have a cell phone (my mother, my youngest son, and the aforementioned 17 year old, who said her mother had taken hers away pending the outcome of her final exams).  After that, there were all sorts of usual and unusual items: glasses (sun and prescription); tissues; every kind of makeup imaginable, including full manicure sets complete with nail polish and remover; brushes, combs, mirrors, shampoo, hair spray and gel; toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash; cough drops, pain pills, allergy relievers,  prescription medications; anti-static spray, spot remover; deodorant; candy, gum, cookies, breakfast/granola bars, bottles of water, pop, and juice; lottery tickets, receipts, coupons, miscellaneous bits of paper; pens and pencils, notepads, calendars; an assortment of tools; business cards (an amazing number of people had no idea where half the cards they had in their wallets came from); digital cameras; portable storage/ playback devices (USB drives, iPods and MP3 players, with as many as three different sets of headphones); scarves, gloves, hats; jewellery; small stuffed toys; good luck charms; a deck of cards; underwear (admittedly, only one person had a complete set of underwear in her purse – I took a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to that one!) 

What Most Men CarryWhen questioned about the things they carried with them, most people admitted they didn’t use them all, but couldn’t imagine leaving home without them. When asked what their ‘must-carry-with-me’ items said about them, most answered with some variation of the same statement, “That I carry too much stuff around!”

The bottom line, I suppose, is that everyone carries different ‘tokens’ with them.  Each collection is of such a personal and individual nature that it’s impossible to discern where much of it came from, or why we jam it into pockets and purses, weigh ourselves down with it, and cart it around.  I suppose we could trace the practice back thousands of years to when humans were a nomadic people – travelling from place to place to find food and shelter.  Since we had to keep moving, all ‘personal’ items had to be small and portable; we learned to safeguard our cache by keeping it close to us. 

Then, perhaps later – when we began to form tribes and gather in groups – it was those small items (that were important to us and that we could hold close) that said the most about who we were and where we came from, and they took on a deeper meaning.  Over time, we started carrying items for trade (from rocks and beads to cash and credit cards), to keep ourselves warm (from furs to gloves and hats), to make ourselves presentable (from kohl and wooden combs to make up and brushes), and communicate with one another (from horns and drums to cell phones and music players).  Always, though, there were the individual, ‘special’ items that each person couldn’t let go of, or wouldn’t go anywhere without.

I doubt I’ll ever feel the need to carry my purse from room to room in my house, like the Queen does, or to keep a spare set of underwear in it.  But I do think that I’ll more carefully consider the items I carry with me from now on, because I want to make sure that the things I have with me always are the most important things in my life, now that I’ve reached … the other side of 55.

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  1. May 26, 2011 12:50 pm

    The equivalent question for a guy would be: “what does he carry in his wallet?” Robert Fulghum once wrote an amusing essay on the matter. He asked a bunch of middle-aged men at a meeting to empty theirs on the table in front of them and discuss what they found.

    When I worked in Kabul I carried a special kind of wallet in a piece of string around the neck. We had to show valid military IDs all the time and that kind of wallet, with a transparent front, turned out to be the best solution. Apart from ID, passport and essential medical stats, I of course carried photos of kids and wife. At boring meetings, it was a pleasure to take them out and look at their faces.

    • May 26, 2011 2:01 pm

      In the fourteenth century, both men and women carried ‘purses’ tied to their belts; I suppose that was because all money was coinage and clothing didn’t have pockets. I’m not sure when the division between women carrying purses (filled with all manner of ‘stuff’) and men using wallets came about but it’s an interesting contrast. I’m glad to hear you carry photos of your family with you at all times – I think that’s great.


  2. May 5, 2011 12:37 pm

    hahahaha! delightful post. Love the snippets about the Queen. I also always wondered why she bothered. I love that its a method of signalling her mood!!! but 200! seriously? as a non-purse carrying person for most of my life and a non-make-up person for most of my life I have now found myself carrying a hold-all bag, not too large mind, but just big enough for a few odds and ends like my mobile phone, camera, batteries, tube-card, credit cards, tissues and the occassional bottle of water (small), and I find it a right royal pain.
    thanks for the smile

    • May 5, 2011 6:31 pm

      I used to own two purses – a black one for winter and a white one for spring (oh, yes, I also have a tiny little clutch I use for the one wedding or special event a year I attend). I’m now down to just one purse (and the little clutch, just in case I get invited to lunch with the Queen). I find it odd that most of the Queen’s 200 purses are almost identical (mostly black, slightly different sizes and finishes). And, yes, carrying stuff around just weighs you down! Glad you enjoyed the post.


  3. May 2, 2011 9:46 am

    Reading this now makes me want to clean out my purse…just in case someone asks me what’s in my purse! 🙂 I loved that you thought of the Queen and her purse! I need to order the book you mentioned and get me a copy and one for my mother. My mom (age 56) is very fascinated by The Royal Family, so she will definitely love reading about “What’s in the Queen’s purse.”
    Great Post! I really enjoy reading your blogs!
    ~J x

    • May 2, 2011 10:17 am

      Most of the people I spoke to at the mall refused to even consider letting me into their purses and pockets (and I probably wouldn’t have agreed if someone had asked me, either). I used to sort through my purse during the ‘seasonal’ swap from black (winter) to white (summer); now I use the same purse year round and I have to consciously sort through once in a while (last time I found a ‘hidden’ $5.00 bill!) I hope you and your mom enjoy the book – I’m sure there’s lots of fascinating things we don’t know about the Royals! Thanks for commenting.


  4. Colleen permalink
    May 1, 2011 5:47 pm

    We should all go on Let’s Make a Deal…we could clean up! While I know every item in my purse…I also know that I should pare it down a little for the health of my back!

    • May 1, 2011 6:28 pm

      I still blame the big, ugly ‘corporate’ purse I carried for years for my shoulder problems!


      • Colleen permalink
        May 1, 2011 10:00 pm

        Or all those text books!

      • May 2, 2011 10:19 am

        No more pencils, no more books, no more big, ugly textbooks! 🙂


  5. May 1, 2011 3:55 pm

    I enjoyed this. I don’t carry a purse because I was always prone to losing them. I carry a wallet and a cell phone in my pockets. I tried bringing a purse on a recent trip and just used it as a place to stuff papers & others things I thought I needed. Now carrying a purse between rooms in my house would be quite silly but I suppose when you live in a palace, it is a bit farther. Great details…fun read.

    • May 1, 2011 4:04 pm

      At one point in my life, I started using one of those waist packs instead of a purse (particularly when on vacation) – so I wouldn’t have to worry about putting it down and losing it, or having it stolen, but it didn’t do much my ‘mid section’. So I went back to a purse (but always one with a long strap that goes around my neck). When I go out for dinner, I use a tiny little thing that holds only a few dollars, a credit card, my ID, and a comb (which is probably all I really need 90% of the time). It’s funny how societal ‘norms’ eventually impact us all, isn’t it?


  6. May 1, 2011 2:44 pm

    “When questioned about the things they carried with them, most people admitted they didn’t use them all, but couldn’t imagine leaving home without them.” My paternal grandmother never wore lipstick but curiously she always carried one. I asked her “What for?” She explained that should someone need one, she wanted to have something to offer if someone was caught without. That was back in the day when everyone wore red so color was not an issue.
    I have carried that thought with me and try to remember to carry mints for someone who may fall to a coughing fit. I also try to bring a toy of distraction for an overwhelmed mother who brings a little one for a church service: three colored crayons, a rattle of keys, a small stuffed animal, and/or a McDonald’s toy.

    • May 1, 2011 3:52 pm

      What a wonderful and thoughful idea (I suppose, in a pinch, I could give a cranky child my little purse gorilla). My mother always used to carry wet naps (or, in an earlier time, a damp washcloth in a plastic bag) for quick cleanups, a small bag of scotch mints or a package of lifesavers for the grandchildren, a handi-pack of Kleenex for anyone who needed one, and an assortment of photographs (so anyone who was bored could play ‘Who’s that?’) I didn’t do any research on the history of purses, but I bet they were invented by a woman who needed to carry a wide range of things (including her husband’s wallet or keys) with her!


      • May 7, 2011 10:36 am

        LOL…oh yes the kleenex… I can’t ever remember the kleenex! What is that about?

      • May 7, 2011 10:59 am

        Do they still sell those little ‘purse packs’ of Kleenex anymore? I usually just stuff a few sheets in my pocket or purse, then can never tell if they’re ‘used’ or not! I wonder what archaeologists of the future will think if they dig up a bunch of women’s purses!?!?!?!?


  7. Cathy Hendrix permalink
    May 1, 2011 2:33 pm

    I loved this one! It made me smile and even laugh out loud. What woman can’t identify with the “My purse weighs ten pounds! What in the world do I have in there? I’m going to put my back out if I don’t do something about it!” And the subsequent “But I just might need those 20 plastic ‘rewards cards’ and the three pounds of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, not to mention the novel I’m in the middle of.” I really liked the connection to the royal wedding which just took place. Very clever and informative – who knew that Queen Elizabeth’s purse was actually used as a secret code???

    • May 1, 2011 3:57 pm

      I was quite surprised at all the conjecture about what the Queen carries in her purse – and the resulting answers! It was fun and fascinating research. On a personal note, I deliberately started carrying smaller purses so I wouldn’t stuff them full of things I don’t need/use (although there are always a few ‘surprises’ that find their way to the bottom of one of the little sections!) And I do know women who’ve had shoulder and back problems (requiring physiotherapy and/or chiropractic treatments) because their purses were too heavy!



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