Bustle with Pocket

by Lena Smith, 1888

Inventor

  • NAMELena Smith
  • PATENTUS382059A
  • DATEMay 1, 1888
  • LOCATIONPatented in the USA – inventor residing in New York
  • INVENTION“Bustle”
  • THEMEConcealing
BIO —

We have not been able to confidently identify this Lena Smith amongst the many people with the same name in the census and newspaper archives. All we know about her is from the opening of the patent document: “Be it known that I, Lena Smith, a citizen of the United States, residing at the city of New York, in the county of New York, and state of New York…”

Invention

PROBLEM —

At a time when women had to be inventive in the ways that they kept their few personal or precious belongings safe, the bustle was an ordinary, everyday and intimate part of their clothing ensemble that was often utilised for storage. But how to make it easier to use this space?

SOLUTION —

Smith designed a bustle with side flaps that could be opened to enable the normally empty space inside it more conveniently put to alternative use for carrying things. Metal spring-ribs give the bustle its curved form, with rivets or similar construction techniques used to hold them in place. The ribs are covered with suitable fabric, which extends out to the sides to form side pieces and the flaps used to access the space inside. Buttons secure the flaps and keep them closed.

“This bustle is used in the same way as other devices of its kind (...) but it may also be used as a sack or pocket in which the wearer may stow away many things inconvenient to carry in the hands – such as a gum rain-mantle and the like.”
— Lena Smith, inventor
Secret uses of bustles with pockets

"It is becoming quite the thing for eastern young ladies to carry revolvers in their bustles."

Bismark Weekly Tribune, North Dakota1883

In an article about a Parisian woman caught stealing a clock in her bustle: "Women notoriously suffer from a dearth of pockets and yet they have never – except in the instance of the felonious lady of Paris – made any attempt to convert the bustle into a pocket. This, however, cannot be the last, and the day will soon come when every bustle will contain, if not a clock, some other article useful to her sex."

Raleigh Register, North Carolina1885

"Mrs Mary Stephen, a hermit who lived in a tumble down hut (...) She was 72 years of age, and had the reputation of being a miser. This suspicion was confirmed when an investigation was made and $600 found sewed in an old bustle."

Northumberland Press, Pennsylvania1898

"Rapid City Terpsichoreans tried the experiment of waxing the floor at a dance the other night, to the great discomfiture of the company on account of the numerous accidents to bustles and pistol-pockets, the owners of which were not used to such 'style'."

The Madisonian, Virginia City1883
Speculatively Sewing Lena Smith's Invention

We made four iterations of Smith’s invention. We started with a half-sized paper version and a full-sized paper version to map out the shape (this was the first time anyone in the team had made a bustle). These toiles helped us to understand how the structure could hold its shape and offer space to conceal and carry things.

The next version was a full-sized calico toile using cable ties as boning. We tried this version on and felt the weight of the bustle with different goods hidden in it.  The opening sides, secured with a clip, meant the wearer could access things on either side and they did not fall out. The person just needed to be flexible enough to twist around. Or perhaps, we surmised for some, it was not about access at all, but rather about constantly carrying things of value.

Many people carried all their important and precious belongings with them. They may have been travelling, transporting goods between sites or it could simply be due to insecure lodgings. Particularly for women, even for those in relationships and secure homes, there were still few private spaces to call one’s own. As Fennetaux writes: “Although eighteenth-century women were increasingly in charge of running the house, the domestic interior afforded them very little actual privacy.”

— Fennetaux, Ariane. 2008. ‘Women’s Pockets and the Construction of Privacy in the Long Eighteenth Century’. Eighteenth Century Fiction, 307–44. P. 307

We noted how secure the bustle felt and how that might have assured the wearer, who otherwise had little, if any private space, that her personal valuables were always safe on her body. Articles in the press confirm this. There were many accounts of women, of all classes, using their bustles to secure precious goods or life long savings.

We constructed a final piece in heavier wool – a Dashing Tweed high-vis reflective weave. This version was made for a performance at Glastonbury in 2023 called “POCKETS of POWER” (-it was covered in a bright neon power mesh). See more about that performance below.

More research into Smith's invention