I didn’t expect to break into tears at the purse museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. But sure enough, tears welled up in my eyes as I stopped at one bright display case. There it was – identical to the red pocketbook that my Grandma Eastman last carried, shiny vinyl with a sturdy gold clasp and a proper, but equally sturdy handle.
Standing there in the museum on a hot summer day in Little Rock, the only thing I could see was that pocketbook on my grandmother’s crooked arm as she trotted to church and the milk store and her senior center luncheons. Tears dripped down my cheeks as I remembered as a child digging in Grandma’s purse for gum or nickels or other treats.
Who would expect such an emotional reaction from a purse museum! But really, who would expect a museum about purses at all and then to find it so interesting.
A Museum About Purses – It Works!
It’s called the Esse Purse Museum – esse referring to the essence of a woman as expressed through her purse. Located in the interesting SoMa neighborhood of Little Rock, the Esse collection includes about 4,000 styles of the things women have carried to keep their “stuff” handy.
In reality, it is a timeline of women’s rights and their independence as individuals. I had never thought of it before, but when women were not allowed to work, when they were not allowed to own property, when they only required a man to handle all matters for them, they had no need to carry money or keys or anything else, thus, no need for a bag of any kind to put them in.
The first purses were called reticules. With decorative little drawstrings, they hung on the wrists of genteel ladies containing calling cards and dance cards, an occasional fan or handkerchief. By the time women were carrying things like tampons, cell phones and pepper spray – all something that my grandmother could never have envisioned – the container had evolved to a handbag, a shoulder bag, or a back pack.
From times of war and the Great Depression to the psychedelic colors of the 1960s, the purse museum documents the American experience as half of our population lived it for more than 100 years.
It’s something to think about.