When Anita Davis began collecting purses in her early 20s, she never would have dreamed she’d have one of the world’s biggest collections one day … and one of only three purse museums in the world. Anita’s mother was a bit of a fashionista in their tiny Arkansas town, and she taught Anita a lot about fashion in the ’50s and ’60s as they would shop surrounding towns. “It was a fun and interesting time for fashion. Women could finally wear pants and shoulder bags were popular,” Anita recalls. “The first purse I bought was at a little antique shop in the ’70s in the first real town I ever lived in. It was a late 1800s summer cotton plantation purse. It really caught my attention.” Fast forward to the late ’80s, Anita was newly divorced living in South Arkansas with her two daughters. She began to think a lot about women’s collective experiences throughout time. Their struggles and triumphs. The things said and the things privately carried.
“My daughters were vagabonds, so when they moved to different places, I would visit and go to flea markets. The purses just kept popping up,” Anita says. She had also joined a Carl Jung-oriented group in Little Rock and started learning about The Feminine. Carl believed in a collective unconscious: a collection of thoughts and imagery that everyone is born with and shares due to ancestral experience, whether we realize it or not (source). “In a collective sense, women have taken a back seat to men. These purses kept finding me. I decided this was a wonderful way to honor women,” Anita explains. As her collection grew, so did her knowledge of what the owner would have carried with her during that time. “One time, one of my daughters came home and couldn’t find her bed because there were so many purses on it!” Anita says through a laugh.
SHARING HER COLLECTION WITH THE WORLD
In 2006, Anita and a group of curators embarked on a traveling exhibit — The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses — across the country, stopping in cities like Dallas, Kansas City, Pasadena, Sacramento and Seattle. As the public’s interest picked up steam, so did the idea for a permanent home. Upon visits to Washington D.C.’s museums, Anita realized how seldom women are celebrated, still depicted as the hostess or the homemaker, their dishes on display. “There was an opening for a structure that was built to honor women,” Anita says.
She believed that Little Rock was the perfect purse for her idea and bought an old 1947-constructed building in an overlooked neighborhood she aimed to revitalize. “I called it the feminine part of Little Rock in that not many people wanted to invest in it. I nurtured it, and it felt like the right place,” Anita adds. Since its opening in July 2013, the ESSE Purse Museum & Shop has garnered a fandom of wide-eyed tourists, artists, historians and collectors from all over the world. Locals are realizing, too, what a treasure the museum is.
DATING THE PURSE
“It’s a hard sell. Is it a purse museum or a women’s history museum? We are trying to build on that question,” Anita says. Attention to historical detail runs deeply throughout the entire process. From the early 1900s, a purse would have a label or a brand name. Anita and her team become sleuths, anthropologists, and curators at once. The bag’s materials, colors, lining, even down to the typeface — uncover something about the era of the purse. Anita does not prefer combing estate sales, but rather the places with the highest potential of finding an older purse with all of the contents still intact. The bags she scores at flea markets have already been emptied, but she visualizes what would have been in them, and collects those things to build the story from the inside out. Let’s peek inside some.
THE PERSON IN THE PURSE
Anita contacted a criminologist in the ’90s when she first started seriously collecting and learned that you can solve a crime if you can get the woman’s purse. “A woman’s purse holds who she is,” Anita says. The name ESSE comes from the Latin infinitive for “to be,” which embodies the idea that a purse is not just a utilitarian container for a woman’s necessities, it is an extension of her personal space, her essence and what makes her unique. The contents of a woman’s purse link to modes of transportation, like coins, tickets, and timetables. Some link to the wars, such as union labels, letters from loved ones, or scribbled down deployment addresses. Many items link to the woman’s family, like toys to entertain the child while the mother shops for groceries or household items. And almost every artifact inside links to the woman’s view of herself and her position in society.
Makeup would not have been carried until the 1920s in America as a woman’s appearance became more and more important in the public sphere. “Before the ’20s, you might have found some smelling salts that helped women wearing corsets breathe,” Anita interestingly adds. Not until the Roaring ’20s was it acceptable to smoke outside the home, so from the ’20s on, women carried tobacco paraphernalia and even flasks.
These two bags from the ’50s show the post-war prosperity and the baby boom’s renewed emphasis on female domesticity and motherhood. The spilled purse is one Steven Otis’ (an ESSE art director) signature displays. “Whatever the style and price point of a 1950s handbag, a look inside reflects the feminine sensibility of the decade: makeup shared space with trading stamps, coupons, a notepad and pencil, an address book, keys to the station wagon, cash, checks, cigarettes, a lady’s handkerchief, and candy and toys for the kids,” writes ESSE Copywriter Laura Hardy.
WHEN AN INTACT BAG SHOWED UP
One day, a man showed up at a nearby restaurant and told the staff to give a purse he had found to the museum, having heard of what Anita was building. He had been cleaning out a late relative’s home and found a handbag untouched since likely the 1930s. “You can tell it had just been sitting in the back of a closet,” Anita says. “It had old cat hair all over it. There were little perfume vials that women used to break open to use the perfume.” This donation was a beautiful depiction of this woman’s little universe. “You just knew that she was a church lady. She was going to carry the purse in one hand while she clung tightly to her little boy with the other. The toys were there to keep him quiet,” Anita tells me through a tinge of nostalgia and wonderment.
AN EVER-EVOLVING MUSEUM
In addition to depicting 10 decades of the American woman, Anita and her team aim to contribute to the powerful conversations on gender and race that are getting louder by the day. “We have incorporated Black women in our show ever since we started. We are always aware of the hierarchy of whence people came. It shows our history,” Anita says. Though ESSE focuses on 20th-century handbags, you can also find sub-exhibits and special collections of swimwear, shoes, hats, and Barbies.
HAVE AN ESSE PURSE OF YOUR OWN
One of the neatest aspects of ESSE is its delightful museum store (shoppable ONLINE!) filled with high-quality and highly unusual handbags as well as eclectic jewelry, scarves, books, and other items — many handcrafted by local, national and international artisans. Purses range from leather, wood, felt and other fabrics to rubber and recycled materials. With prices ranging from $5 to $1,000, the store offers something for everyone and aligns with Anita’s beliefs in fair trade, sustainability and anti-fast fashion.
While she isn’t nearly as active seeking as she once was, Anita still collects purses. “I won’t ever lose my lust for finding. I was a hunter-gatherer in another life,” she says. At the end of our conversation, I asked Anita what purse she carries. “I was trendy in the ’60s and carried vintage bags in the ’80s. Then I think I carried the same purse for 10 years!” That truly encompasses this culture pioneer’s view of the bag as perhaps the most personal and important appendage to the woman. ESSE’s goal is to celebrate women as a collective but also individually. “This place honors your mother and your aunt and all the women that are important to you,” Anita says.
Thank you, Anita, for sharing this story. And to the whole ESSE Museum team for the gorgeous photos and cultural context of some of the most interesting bags. It’s worth a trip to Little Rock to see what else is in the deep and beautiful bag that is ESSE.
For more of the best people and places of the South, make sure to follow us on Instagram!