Skip to content

The Nécessaire (Part One – in the 18th Century)

Google the word ‘nécessaire’ and you come up with two rather different types of item, both of which got their name from the fact that they were ‘necessary’ when travelling.

The first items are simple containers for everyday utensils such as cutlery or sewing materials. In the early part of the Eighteenth Century it was not uncommon to find that your host expected you to bring your own table implements and it was really only in the second half of the century that people splashed out on knives and forks for the entire assembled company. In particular, if you called at an inn it would be prudent to have with you your own set of feeding implements. The cutlery would be held in a small case or clasp, such as in this French example from the late 1600’s. It is described as a ‘Nécessaire de bouche de chasseur’ and contained three items namely  a bodkin, a knife, and a two-pronged fork. These are elaborately engraved as can be seen from this picture, shown courtsey of Expertissim at their site at



Another example of a small portable cases is this Georgian nécessaire on the left containing  a sewing kit, pocket knife and pencil, taken from the Lang Antiques website at In a way it was the Swiss Army knife of its day and in time these handy and beautifully ornate containers evolved into modern handbags – something in which you could keep make-up, cigarettes etc.  On the right is a splendid Stafforshire-ware enamel  nécessaire described as being ‘painted with figures by a lakeside palace, a courting couple and floral bouquets, reserved against a pink ground with raised white and gilt ornament, gilt-metal mounts, the interior with five various implements including a fruit knife with steel blade, an ivory notelet, a pencil and a folding ruler’ (extract and picture courtesy of Carters Price Guide to Antiques). Other containers were associated with writing implements, sewing kits etc.

I also came across this delightful necessaire (or étui ) show-cased on the site called Possessions of a Lady’

Fine and beautiful as these things are, they are in a different league from the other nécessaires – the travel cases which are more like a portmanteau, and which evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries. More of those in my next post!


6 thoughts on “The Nécessaire (Part One – in the 18th Century)”

  1. Now I had come across the term étui [often rendered etwee in uncompromising English, especially if researching them on the Old Bailey site] but not nécessaire. The decorated little conceits are a far cry from the attractive but essentially very functional tooled leather case for eating irons! I have to say, I’d have a job figuring out what some of the necessary items in the possessions of a lady might have been used for… thank you for a delightful post.

  2. I have seen the second necessaire or étui many times on antique programmes on tv, but almost always for women. Do you think the fruit knife with steel blade, the ivory notelet, a pencil and a folding ruler etc could have been equally used by men?

    1. I still have ancestor Richard Hall’s ivory notelet with clasp, complete with pencil, but I am not sure about the other items! I also have his pen knife (ie for trimming quill pens) but it is in a rather masculine and functional shagreen case. I suspect that is the point: fruit knives, rulers etc would all have been used by men but only the ladies versions came in elaborate cases.

    1. A bodkin is like a large needle – almost like a sharp skewer. Different trades used bodkins for different purposes – leather workers would use one for sewing leather, printers would use it for removing type for correction, and seamstresses would use one for drawing tape etc through a hem. I sometimes used one to make a hole through multiple sheets of paper. Legal secretaries used them to make holes in the margin of legal documents and then to sew a piece of ribbon through the pages in such a way that they could not fall out or be tampered with. Presumably it could also be used skewering, or rolling and stringing a piece of meat. A handy implement especially on a dark night!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *