The Things We Carried by
(84 Stories)

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Little Rock, Arkansas is the home of Central High, the Clinton Library—and the only dedicated purse museum in the United States. Although not a traditional art museum, I think the ESSE Purse Museum exhibits a different kind of art: symbols of the lives of women in a one-of-a-kind collection of clutches, crossovers, and cavernous carryalls.

The ESSE Purse Museum provides a unique perspective on 20th century American women, illustrated through a display of the purses they carried. The museum’s exhibits also trace the history of fashion in the last century, of women’s evolving sense of self, of accessories as art.

(I visited the museum several years ago on a side trip to Northwest Arkansas after visiting the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the October craft fairs in War Eagle.)

Arranged within the museum’s glass display cases is a collection of purses from 1900 through the 1990s, divided by decade. Owner and curator Anita Davis has assembled a dazzling array of purses demonstrating the changes in what women carried—over their shoulders or tucked by their sides—as their needs and habits changed over time. The ten main displays and their witty interpretations, written by Laura Cartwright Hardy, make it clear that the purses—and their contents—tell a larger story, each purse representing the woman who clutched it in her gloved hand at a USO dance or slung it over her shoulder on the way to work. Rather than try to summarize Hardy’s work, here are a few excerpts:

“What is the essence of womanhood? Despite her inner core that makes her unique, every woman is also an ‘everywoman’ tapped into the collective consciousness that preceded her and will exist long after she is but a remembered whiff of cologne, a hint of spearmint in an old handbag, a rosewater-scented handkerchief long-buried in a drawer.”

“Just as the essence of a woman is not her appearance, size, shape or hair color, the essence of a woman’s handbag is not its style, price, designer logo or color. The essence of both are the things they carry, literal and ethereal–the makeup and the memories, the driver’s license and the driving desires, the hairbrush and the hope, the wallet and the wishes, the lotion and the love.”

“Not an accessory, but an extension of her ‘self,’ a woman’s purse  is….the sacred, private place that holds her identity, her valuables, her memories, her dreams, her mystery. Always within reach, her purse is personal space, not a possession but a hallowed repository of the things that make her ‘her.'”

Who she was, how she moved about in her world—whether she belonged to the flapper era, the turbulent ’60s, or the have-it-all ’80s—her story is told in purses made of leather, plastic, needlepoint, metal, snakeskin or straw, glittery and gilded, sequined or beaded. Each purse carries with it traces of the woman who packed the comb, compact, and mad money— or the brick-size phone, a pair of running shoes and a granola bar. You can almost catch the scent of Shalimar or Chanel N°5 on the edge of a handkerchief tucked inside one of the satin evening bags.

Again, Ms. Hardy:

“Sensual or sturdy, purses offer so much to ponder: the aroma of childhood, remembrances of home, people past and times gone by–and the smell of the new: leather, straw, hopes, ambitions. A hint of a scent–was my mother just here?”

Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Love this, Risa! I had no idea that this museum existed and it brings back such delightful and sometimes funny memories of purses past, from the large tooled leather monstrosities of the 70s to my grandmother’s little embroidered bag, which I cherish. Thanks for a wonderful presentation.

  2. Suzy says:

    What a wonderful discovery, Risa! I agree, this qualifies as an art museum! I love your descriptions and pictures, as well as the excerpts from the museum brochure! Best alliteration ever: “the makeup and the memories, the driver’s license and the driving desires, the hairbrush and the hope, the wallet and the wishes, the lotion and the love.”

  3. Fabulous, fun story, Risa…maybe we should do a prompt on purses and murses!

  4. This is wonderful Risa!
    After my mother died, and more recently my aunt, the purses we found in their closets indeed helped remind me a bit about the women they were.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Dana. As I mentioned in another reply, my mother was a matching shoes and purse kind of gal. I remember very clearly her (gasp) alligator heels and matching handbag. She hung onto all her shoes and purses long after she was using/wearing them.

      • Risa, you’ve got me thinking more about my mother who was not at all a clothes horse. (I wrote about her in an earlier story MY GAME MOTHER)

        Yet somehow I remember she did have a pair of dressy alligator shoes – until out new puppy chewed them up!

        • Risa Nye says:

          Oh no! I’m sure the puppy got in a lot of trouble for that. I actually loved my mother’s alligator shoes, but never got the chance to borrow them. She wore a 5 1/2, and so did I until my first kid came along!

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    I, too, LOVE this Risa. I had no idea there was purse museum, but love the idea of defining a woman by the contents of her purse (I always carry too much), and the lovely, fragrant descriptions above. I tend to keep old purses, including some of my mother’s best ones, which are probably vintage by now and have carried a few to weddings. Your display photos are so appealing and the descriptions just wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    This is very interesting, Risa. I never thought about how the contents of my purses reflect not only who I am but the era in which I carried them. So what to say about a purse filled with disposable masks, hand sanitizer, plastic gloves, and a gizmo to touch elevator buttons?

    • Risa Nye says:

      I say that it says we are living in contagious times! Actually, these days I carry a tiny purse with the bare necessities: car keys, tissues, debit card, license, hand sanitizer. Don’t need half the stuff I normally carry! And cut this list in half if I’m just going on a walk.

  7. I liked the way your own alliterative intro (“collection of clutches, crossovers, and cavernous carryalls….”) foreshadowed the heavily–and I would say, overly–alliterative phrases preferred by the author of the Museum’s scripts: “makeup and the memories, the driver’s license and the driving desires, the hairbrush and the hope, the wallet and the wishes,.,.” and “the comb, compact, and mad money…” Thanks for bringing us in for a visit to this place that few of us will make it to in person.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Dale. Too much of a good thing, eh? Imagine that the interpretations are spread throughout the museum. I bunched them together because, frankly, I love a good alliteration! I don’t know how many people will actually go to this place, but I’m happy to share my memories of it.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    We lost a dear friend in October. Stacy was a funny eclectic fashion plate with a passion for purses. Reading this made me think of her.

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