Historic Purse-onality Exhibit at Siouxland Old Courthouse Museum

I visited the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls, SD, last week and enjoyed its newest exhibit, Historic Purse-onality. It was very interesting to see how the function of purses changed through the decades and how the function affected the appearance, especially the size, of purses. It was also interesting to see how the function of purses was affected by the changing roles of women.

Several hundred years ago, men carried their money pouches on the outside of their clothing, but women had pockets under their clothing. The pockets were private and hidden.

Beaded reticule ca. 1900 All photos by Deb Watley

Beaded reticule ca. 1900
All photos by Deb Watley

Then the reticule–a tiny bag women carried outside their clothing–came into fashion during the 18th Century. The reticules were controversial at first because some felt the reticules were still part of female undergarments. Eventually, purses became a symbol of femininity and necessary for well-dressed women. Now, purses, as well as pockets, are used by both men and women.

Why the change? In part, the changing role of women.

At one time, husbands controlled the money, so in the 1800s, women’s purses may have carried a mirror, an early form of an appointment calendar, a fan, opera glasses, and a pistol. But as wives began to have more control of the family marketing, and began to earn money, women needed a place to carry money, cosmetics, hygiene products, and work-related items. The purses grew larger.

Now we carry tablets, phones, items for baby and children, cosmetics, work papers, keys, self-defense tools, etc. And some of our purses are huge.

Not only did the size and shape of purses change through the years, but so did the materials used and the manner of their production. At first the reticules were seamstress-made or homemade (fabric, beaded, embroidered, knitted/crocheted, etc.). They were made to be beautiful and functional and, I’m sure, also reflected the personality of the maker &/or wearer. Now, factory-made purses are the norm, and designer-labeled purses can cost hundreds of dollars. I think, though, there have been recurring times when homemade purses were in vogue, especially the 1960s and 70s.

In the last 125 years or so, purses may have also been made of leather, exotic animal leather, metal, plastics, and a variety of fabrics.

Crocheted drawstring bag, ca. 1920. This is similar to my first crochet project.

Crocheted drawstring bag, ca. 1920. This is similar to my first crochet project in the 1970s.

Prada designer purse

Prada designer purse

At times, a woman might have only one or two purses. Sometimes women had a purse to match each outfit. Now, it seems, women like to have a variety of purses, to change with seasons or functionality needs.

Honeymoon outfit with matching purse, pumps, and hat, ca. 1963.

Honeymoon outfit with matching purse, pumps, and hat, ca. 1963.

In the Harry Potter books, my favorite object is Hermione’s magic purse. A small reticule-style purse, it carries whatever Hermione put in it, yet the purse stays the same size and weight. She carried lots of books, medicine, a tent, clothing, and a ton of camping gear. The even more amazing thing is that she could always find what she needed.

I saw several purses like that in the exhibit. No, they weren’t magic. But their expanding metal opening reminded me of how wonderful Hermione’s purse was.

Purse with expanding opening ca. 1925

Purse with expanding opening ca. 1925

Men have begun carrying bags again, thanks to tablets, etc. and briefcases seem to be out-of-date. Now they often carry messenger-style bags.

I love purses, and I love multiple styles. I’m fairly short, so I tend to like medium-size, cross-body styles for hands-free usage. However, I often carry a reading book and writing supplies, so I like the practicality of a tote-style purse–even if they do get heavy.

The exhibit showed how modern American women tend to carry too much in their purses. According to the US Department of Agriculture, we should only carry 2.2 pounds. Chiropractors say purses should weigh less than 10% of our body weight.

My purse weighed more than 3 lbs, and I didn’t even have a book in there.

purse on scale

My purse weighed about 3.25 lbs., a pound more than recommended by chiropractors.

My purse weighed about 3.25 lbs.

Maybe we should just resort to backpacks. I have several of those, too.

What era does your purse hearken to? What’s more important to you in a purse, function or appearance? What unusual things do you carry in your purse? How much does your purse weigh?


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