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‘Ma’am, we need to check your purse’
By Tom Adkinson
March 29, 2024

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purse museum shoulder bag
Purses from throughout the 1900s, including this 1990s shoulder bag made from soft drink pull tabs, tell many stories about American women. Image by Tom Adkinson

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – I never imagined I would alter my travel plans to visit a museum exclusively about women’s purses, but I delayed departing Little Rock to see one of only two purse museums in the world. My peek inside the collective purse of American women was full of surprises.

purse museum toad
This coin purse made from a taxidermied toad stands out in a display of purses made from many types of animal hides. Image by Tom Adkinson

I saw cloth purses, intricately beaded purses, sequined purses, woven purses, wooden purses, plastic purses, leather purses, a purse made from a pony’s pelt and more. My favorite – just because it was so weird – was a zippered coin purse made from a taxidermied toad.

What I saw was perhaps only 10 percent of the purses Arkansan Anita Davis collected for more than 40 years before creating the ESSE Purse Museum and Store in Little Rock’s artsy SoMa (South Main Street) neighborhood.

travel bags
Novelty purses relating to travel, including this woven monkey and this artfully carved gourd, fill one special display. Image by Tom Adkinson

Far more important than the purses themselves is the story they tell. ESSE actually is a museum that chronicles the fashion, social and even psychological and behavioral history of American women.

The core of ESSE is a permanent exhibit, “What’s Inside: A Century of Women and Handbags 1900-1999.” Smaller exhibits complement the main exhibit and usually change quarterly.

purse museum little rock
Evenings out inspire sparkling accessories, including purses that are more for show than utility. Image by Tom Adkinson

purses in acrylic cases
One wall at ESSE is devoted to purses of many designs displayed in acrylic cases. Image by Tom Adkinson


Each decade of the 1900s gets special focus in individual cases that display purses along with historical and cultural artifacts. Take time to read the tightly written text panels in each case. They deliver snapshots of what was happening in America and how purses reflected social changes and political forces. Each panel suggests what items likely were in women’s purses in those years.

For instance, as women gained a modicum of independence in the first two decades of the 1900s, soft mesh totes with drawstring tops remained popular, but bag manufacturers began making bags with compartments to stash cosmetics, money, stamps and even cigarette cases and checkbooks.

In the Roaring 20s, fashionable women sported eye-catching purses decorated with glitter, beads, embroidery or even feathers. The clutch, “streamlined to express the exhilarating pace of modern life,” became the “it” purse of the decade.

In this decade, Sears and Roebuck – both in stores and through catalogs – sold many varieties of purses at moderate prices, meaning that even average women could buy an array of purses for various occasions.

The mood of the country changed with the Great Depression of the 1930s, and purse fashion did, too. Gone were the days of abundance and frivolity, and as this decade’s panel notes, many women turned to having just one “good” purse of superior quality that would last for years.

After World War II and into the 1950s, the look of purses brightened, and designer names began to appear. The story of one caught my eye. It was the Hermes “Kelly Bag,” named for actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly. One of its functions was to try to conceal her pregnancy in 1956 – a sign of very different times.

In an alcove next to the chronological cases is a minor display some visitors can’t resist. It’s a supermarket produce scale with a sign that challenges women to weight their purses. Part of the display is tips from a local chiropractor about how much one’s purse should weigh and tactics for keeping it as light as possible.

drawstring handbags
Simple drawstring handbags accompanied outfits in the early 1900s, when women sewed their own dress patterns that cost 25 cents. Image by Tom Adkinson

Among special display cases are ones about purses that relate to travel and purses made of many types of leather. The leather purse display is where the taxidermied toad smiled back at me.

ESSE more than satisfied my curiosity about purses, which is a good thing. The only other purse museum is in world is in Seoul, South Korea.

Trip-planning resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is included in the third edition of the book, which is available at

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