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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Last week I attended the monthly meeting of the Sioux Falls chapter of the South Dakota Archaeological Society (SDAS). Usually the group meets at Augustana University, but last Thursday the group met at the Old Courthouse Museum and toured the American Indian Artistry exhibit.
The exhibit had examples of baskets and pottery; bows, arrows, and clubs; bowls and horn spoons; but the focus was on the painting, beading, and quilling used to decorate moccasins, clothing, bags of various sizes, handles of clubs, and knife sheaths. The moccasin in the above photo is similar to the ones at the museum, except the ones in the exhibit had beads, and the one in the photo looks like it has quilling.
I’ve seen beading before, but quilling was new to me. In traditional quilling, the women would soften porcupine quills, in their mouth, and then flatten the quills, either between their teeth or with a bone tool. Then they would sew these in rows, like an embroidery satin stitch. Many of the designs were also painted. I don’t know if the quills were painted before or after the sewing. And I don’t know if they used needles or made holes in the skins with an awl. Can any of you tell me?
I was so impressed by two things at the exhibit: First, beading and quilling must have taken an immense amount of skill and time. I’ve done enough embroidery and cross-stitching to have an idea of the work involved. And I nearly always followed a commercial pattern; only once or twice did I make up my own design. I wonder if the beading and quilling would have been a winter occupation? Can you imagine doing that by firelight? And without a magnifying glass?
The second thing that hit me is that we crave more than just survival. We also crave beauty. Especially if it is symbolic to us. That makes me think of the movie The Monument Men (which I still haven’t seen). Is art important enough to die for? I don’t know. Maybe. But, it is certainly a gift to us to have so much of the world’s art preserved. Life is so much better when it includes some kind of beauty, whether it’s visual art, music, or literature, etc.
Just for fun, there’s a third thing that impressed me at the exhibit. The museum displayed lots of bags of various sizes and uses, all decorated with paint, beads, and/or quills, so maybe I shouldn’t let myself feel frivolous for loving colorful purses! How do you combine functional and beautiful?
If you’re in the Sioux Falls area, Augustana College and SDAS are hosting a program about the use of geophysics in archeology, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Mar. 16 in the Gilbert Science Center on campus. The program is free and open to the public.