Purse Museum In Little Rock Celebrates Women’s Rights

I felt so ridiculous. I was standing in a museum in Little Rock, Arkansas and I was fighting back tears. 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.

A line of purses on a shelf at the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock Arkansas.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 building filled with purses! But they say, guys cry here more than women. It’s the image, the memory of strong women in their lives.

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A Museum About Purses in Little Rock

The exterior of the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock ArkansasIt’s called the Esse Purse Museum – esse referring to the essence of a woman as expressed through her purse. Seriously, ladies, we know our handbags are simply an extension of our souls, right?

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.

History of Purses on Display in Little Rock Museum

A display of handbags at the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock ArkansasThe first purses were called reticules. With decorative little drawstrings, they hung on the wrists of genteel ladies. All they need to carry were calling cards and dance cards, an occasional fan or handkerchief.

By the time women were carrying things like tampons, cell phones, lap tops, pepper spray, hand guns — all something that my grandmother could never have envisioned — the container had evolved to a handbag, a shoulder bag, or a back pack. And it was as tough as the women who carried them.

From times of war and the Great Depression to the psychedelic colors and macramé of the 1960s, the purse museum documents the American experience as half of our population lived it for more than 100 years.

It’s also a place where modern fashion designers sell their latest bags, their interpretation of what women might need to have handy. It’s just as much fun to look around, and perhaps buy a meaningful souvenir while helping another generation of women make their own statement.

But make sure you have some tissues in whatever you carry. You may need it.

Exhibit of purses at Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock Arkansas 

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