Little Rock, Arkansas has a lot of unique features, but one really stood out during our research. The Esse Purse Museum is one of only three brick and mortar locations dedicated to the history of one of women’s most interesting accessory and the only one found in the United States. This may not seem like the most expected stop on a couple’s trip, but it was so out of the ordinary that there was no way we could pass it up.

We want to thank the Little Rock CVB and Esse Purse Museum for their hospitality. Rest assured that all opinions are our own.

The Esse Purse Museum is one of only three in the world and the only one in the United States.

Why An Esse Purse Museum?

During our visit we had the honor of meeting Anita Davis, the woman behind the museum. Anita saw an area of Little Rock that was prime for a resurgence. The South Main Street area (Nicknamed SOMO) was filled with empty storefronts, like areas found in many metropolitan cities. The addition of an anchor attraction could become the impetus for other small businesses to flourish. The plan was viable, as it has worked in many other places with great success. Bringing a purse museum to the site would certainly create a one-of-a-kind attraction.

One of the display cases found inside the Esse Purse Museum.

What’s Inside

Handbags have been in existence for many centuries, but for the longest time they were simply a utilitarian tool. While there have been examples of decorative leather purses from earlier times, it appears that even through the  Dark Ages decorative styles were reserved for the wealthy and influential. Smaller clutches were used for coin purses and men and women alike would use bags of all sizes. Drawstring bags became the rage in the 1800’s and slowly gave way to embroidered styling. It was the 1900’s that saw the largest variations on the handbag, and that is the period Esse Purse Museum focuses on. Stepping into the gallery, we were greeted with a wide range of colors, textures, and styles.

A wide variety of purses, handbags, and clutches can be found in this unique museum.

We examined the display cases, as we listened to Anita’s story about her inspiration for starting the museum. The details in many of the pieces are amazing. The exhibits are not limited to just handbags, but also showcase items that would be commonly found in handbags during the appropriate period. It is interesting to see some of the things that would be found throughout the decades. We remembered some of them from our mother’s handbags during our youth.

Unique display cases are found at the Esse Purse Museum.

Making It Modern

The museum is very modern looking and is quite intriguing, especially for a guy. Our sex has always found a little mystery surrounding the purse. It can be less of an accessory at times and more an extension of a woman’s space. There are not many articles that are so associated with women. If you doubt this, just ask a guy to hold a purse in a busy mall. It is a fun way to determine just how comfortable they are with their own sexuality.

Sometimes the purse design is strictly a fashion statement.

As we examined the display cases, we would come across some designs that we didn’t recall. Many we would certainly have remembered, if we had seen them before, since they were so unusual. Here is another spot where men and women differ on accessories. Men’s wallets are usually fairly non-descript, while a woman’s handbag is truly an extension of her fashion. That being said, I was still a little unsure of what the message was that would be given with some of the purses on display. I’m sure they were meant clearly as a “fashion statement” and not necessarily for functional purposes.

Memorabilia from smoking advertisements were once common place.

Featured Exhibits

At the Esse Purse Museum they strive to include special exhibits that rotate. This allows visitors to have a different experience on subsequent visits. During our stop they were featuring an exhibit dubbed “Up In Smoke”. The display cases are filled with brightly colored smoking accessories that will be readily recognizable to many. These came from a period of history where the idea of smoking was romanticized in the movies, on television, and in print ads everywhere.

Artifacts from the golden age of smoking offer bright coloring.

Previous rotating exhibits have featured wedding dresses and accessories, women’s shoes, and even lingerie. The current exhibit is ending soon, and will be replaced with an interesting collection of illustrations by Betsy Davis. It will showcase designs of women with handbags through the decades. So for those that are looking for an unusual site to visit during their next Little Rock trip, the Esse Purse Museum will fit that bill perfectly. Who knows, like me you may find a new respect for this under appreciated accessory. Now it’s time for you to confess something. What is the most memorable handbag you have ever owned. Tell us a little about it, and why you loved it so much, in the comments section below!



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