It’s What’s Inside That Counts: The ESSE Purse Museum

By Kathleen Pate, Immediate Past President, Arkansas Women’s History Institute

What started out as one woman’s collection of purses is now the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. The small museum is one of only three purse museums in the world and the only one located in North America. You might be wondering why the world needs three museums dedicated to women’s purses. I can’t speak to the level of interpretation at the international sites but the exhibits at ESSE provide a unique and compelling look at twentieth-century women’s history.

To understand what makes ESSE, from the Latin infinitive for “to be,” special and worth visiting, you first need to consider how museums have traditionally presented women’s history. Women are most often mentioned in relationship to others, as in “she was the daughter of,” “she was the wife of,” or “she was the mother of,” etc. If women are interpreted as playing an active role at a historic site, these are primarily connected to feminine concerns such as fashion and foodways. As institutions strive to dig deeper into women’s lives, there are significant challenges. If you can find written records, women are frequently referred to only by their husband’s name, making it difficult to correctly identify and connect references.

Girl Scout uniform and accessories from the 1940s, courtesy of the ESSE Purse Museum.

When the ESSE Purse Museum first opened in 2013, I was intrigued. It was three years before I found time to visit. I walked in expecting to see a plethora of designer bags arranged along a timeline to demonstrate how styles have changed over the years. Instead, I found ten cases, each one representing a decade of the twentieth century. Inside were three or four purses surrounded by period images and everyday objects that women might have carried in their bags at the time. As I moved from chatelaines to credit cards, the content of each case created a complex narrative. Different items illustrated the changes in women’s lives over time, from the necessity of carrying smelling salts to the availability of birth control pills.

The permanent exhibit is entitled “What’s Inside: A Century of Women and Handbags 1900-1999.” It grew out of a traveling exhibit featuring the collection of Anita Davis. “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses,” curated by Curatrix Group and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Arts Services, traveled the country from 2006 to 2011. When Davis sought to create a home for the exhibit and her extensive collection of purses and other period pieces, she selected a spot in the SoMa (South on Main) district of Little Rock. The repurposed garage, painted in a simple black and white color scheme with bold red accents, serves as the perfect backdrop for the permanent exhibits. In addition to the stand alone cases showcasing purses and probable content by decade, there are three wall cases. Each one has items tied to a different theme: purses made from animal skin, evening bags, and travel accessories.

ESSE also has a temporary gallery. The small space is ideal for in-house exhibits that to date have explored subjects ranging from swimsuits styles to smoking accessories. The current temporary exhibit, “Purses with Purpose: Girl Scouts Through the Decades,” includes official Girl Scout uniforms, purses, and ephemera dating back to the 1930s. The items are on loan from Girl Scouts USA, Girl Scouts Diamonds of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and a couple of private collections. As a lifetime member of Girl Scouts, I’m proud to have played a role in creating the exhibit. “Purses with Purpose” runs through August 18. I don’t know what the next temporary exhibit will be but I can guarantee that a visit to ESSE will be interesting and informative.


Learn more about the ESSE Purse Museum and the Women’s History Affinity Community.