The History of Purses Museum

San Diego, California USA Purse Exhibit

100 Years of 100 Handbags was a tribute to women’s purses and handbags, and the women who carried them. There was an exhibit at the Women’s Museum in California where the handbags were on display from June 2nd to July 2nd, 2017. Museum director Diane Peabody Straw stated that it was their mission to tell stories, and the collection was a reflection of that.100 Year Old Purses and Picture Display

The purses came from Jean Nemer from Chicago, currently living in San Diego California. She donated the collection to the museum including two vintage bags that her Grandmother Anna Larson owned. A photo of her Grandmother is displayed next to the fan she is holding.

The Handbag Collection

The handbag collection consisted of small beaded bags from the 1880’s and ended with a bright Art Nouveau clutch from 1960. There were ring size bags that would dangle from a finger, purses made from abalone shells, some made with swingy flapper fringe, and gold mesh glamour bags from the 1950’s.

The smaller purses from the mid 1800’s were a reflection of the limited space women had in society. Women of a certain class used these bags for going out at night to a theater or social events. The purses of the past were tiny, some just big enough to hold a house key as the men carried the money. They didn’t carry makeup because women would not be seen putting on make up in public. The purses get bigger in this time period.

100 Year Old Historical Purses Display

The Evolution of Design and Size

As more people moved from farms to cities, the purses got larger. They planned outings, and their lives were similar to the way we live today.  From the petite pouches of the 1800’s making them grateful for the big life and massive bag it demands, to the bags from the 1920’s that devoted the Roaring Twenties of a rainbow riot of gleaming glass-beaded purses with swinging fringes among others. Women were taking on an authenticity and living their lives outside of what others expected of them. They cared about movement and broke free.

The zipper was introduced in the 1930’s and also brought an early version of today’s flash fashion. Two women started a company called LuJean Inc. where they made more affordable purses. The collection’s red velvet LuJean clutch looked like a Valentine but was big enough to carry a wallet, hankie and more. You can tell a lot about a woman by looking at her purse.

The Best Exhibit Bags

In the exhibit there was a hand tooled brown leather purse from 1918, one of the few leather bags there. Also a white beaded purse from the 1940’s that could have been used for a wedding. There were vanity purses from 1910 that came with compacts that had a comb, mirror, rouge, powder and powder puff. There were classy tapestry bags, slinky chain link styles or Dresden mesh bags with Art Deco clasps.

At this museum you will find the permanent tribute to the pioneering women who attended the Seneca Falls, N.Y., women’s rights convention in 1848, rallied for equal pay for equal work in San Diego in 1910, and marched in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C.

The collection from the Women’s Museum in California is seen in this short video. The purses are in mint condition and reflect the history and evolution of 100 years of handbags.


I would like to acknowledge and thank Reporter Karla Peterson, and Director of News and Programming Luis Cruz both of The San Diego Union Tribune in San Diego, California, USA for allowing me to share this story published in their newspaper.

Click on Women’s Purses and Handbags for more information about them, to read and shop for men’s click on Men’s Bags and Accessories. The option to shop for both are to the right on my sidebar where I have several merchants listed.


  1. Tricia


    It’s fascinating to see how bags have evolved. Thank you for sharing. They do say a lot about a person. My favourite was a woven, one compartment purse pack with a couple of small pockets on the front. I attempted to be a bit more “grownup” when I replaced it with a purse (though I kept the woven look) and when it’s time to replace it I’m going back to purse packs. I miss it!

    1. Patsy


      Hi Tricia, you are welcome.

      I agree with how our bags say a lot about us. We tend to stay with the same style we became accustomed to.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  2. Mindful Mantra


    Hi Patsy,

    What a wonderful article. I love reading about all kinds of history, and I have to admit I’ve never really read much about the history of fashion before! This has made me want to read more and more, it’s intriguing how the bag sizes grew as fashion changed!

    Thanks for writing,

    1. Patsy


      Hi Sophie,

      Thank you for liking my article, I saw this in a newspaper and had to add it to my website! They allowed me to do so, and I enjoyed putting it together along with the short video that had a lot of information on this.

      They sure came a long way, and reading how and why the changes came about was a great read.

      You are welcome, I’m glad you found it!

  3. Linda Frankson


    Thanks Patsy for bringing this site to us Ladies it is very interesting to find something that is a tribute to us. I really enjoyed the video and incite to Handbags I enjoy History and reading about our Ancestors.
    I like many don’t think of these things because they just are something that we use every day. I don’t like clutter so I tend to look for something smaller so that it obligates me to eliminate the clutter. I am a practical person and usually get one very versatile bag that serves me in everything I do. it is always nice to see other taking their interests to heart and sharing their passion with others. I totally enjoyed my visit with you.

    1. Patsy


      Hi Linda, you are welcome.
      I was the same with having my one handbag all year round until it fell apart. It was my favorite and I couldn’t find a match to replace it. This is why I have a collection and use them all depending on the occasion. It makes them ‘last’ longer having so many, by taking turns with them. We all have our preferences depending on our lifestyles.

      Thank you for stopping by I appreciate it!

  4. Tiffani


    Hey Patsy!
    Very Very interesting article. I walk around everyday with my handbag and purse and never stopped to think about the history of it, where it came from and how it came to be. SO thanks for opening my eyes. It’s also interesting to see the evolution of them.

    1. Patsy


      Hi Tiffani, thank you for reading another one of my posts, I appreciate it.

      It’s true how we go on doing things, not thinking of how they came to be. It’s the same for purses and handbags, they have been around for a very long time. The styles have changed as the decades went by, and now we have a bit of everything. Older styles come back years later then fade to return again.

      I always have something new to write about so come back soon!

  5. lynnsamuelson


    I’ve always loved handbags and enjoy learning the historical perspective. Like everything in fashion, what becomes popular reflects that era in history. I loved the photos of the vintage bags; the last time I saw photos like that was at a museum exhibition in NYC at the Met. I have quite a collection myself and can’t seem to be able to part with any of them because styles seem to keep coming back. What are your favorite handbags?

    1. Patsy


      Hi Lynn, thank you for taking an interest in the history of purses and for your comment.

      I have always loved purses and handbags and was happy to be able to share this history article I found. I didn’t realize how far back they were around. I too have a large collection and use them all for the occasion warranted. My favorite handbags are the crossbody style because they are hands free and convenient.

      Thank you for stopping by and I hope to see you again soon.

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