Esse Purse Museum
Esse Purse Museum in the historic urban neighborhood of Southside Main Street (SoMa) in Little Rock (Pulaski County) is one of three brick-and-mortar purse museums in the world. The museum’s name comes from the Latin infinitive for “to be,” and the logo is styled as ESSE. The owner, Anita Davis, created the permanent museum in Little Rock in 2013 after exhibiting selections from her purse collection around the country from 2006 to 2011. Esse Purse Museum has a permanent exhibit that showcases purses throughout an entire century, including what they held; the museum also occasionally holds temporary exhibits. The museum’s gift shop offers designer purses, jewelry, wallets, and other accessories.
The historic building on 1510 South Main Street that houses the museum was constructed in 1946 and was occupied by several businesses over the years, including Hughes Auto Repair & Painting, Columbia Motor Transport, Binswanger Glass Co., the Samelson Company of Arkansas (a wholesale tobacco and candy company), and John Cooke/Stageworks Inc. Over the years, Davis purchased a significant amount of property in the SoMa district, which is now home to thriving businesses and organizations such as Loblolly Creamery, the Root Cafe, and the Oxford American magazine. Davis also owns the Bernice Garden in the same area, which displays sculptures and hosts a farmer’s market and other events.
The purse museum grew out of an exhibit created by Davis and others called The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses that was shown throughout America before opening to the public in June 2013 in its permanent location. The museum’s permanent exhibit, What’s Inside: A History of Women and Handbags 1900–1999, is made up of more than 250 purses from Davis’s private collection, which was curated by Curatrix Group and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Arts services. The museum represents Davis’s exploration of art, history, and the feminine.
The permanent collection has a display for each decade from the 1900s to the 1990s. Each decade has a case dedicated to purses and what the average woman from that decade would most likely have kept in her purse. There are three additional displays with specific themes, including one titled Nothing’s More Natural Than Skin and another called A Night on the Town. Esse Purse Museum has more than purses and their contents. For example, an exhibit on luggage titled By Land, Sea or Air provides information about important events like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Interstate Highway System.
Esse has hosted many temporary exhibits alongside its permanent exhibit. The museum collaborated with the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center to create a temporary exhibit from January through April 2017 called Reflections: Images and Objects from African American Women, 1891–1987 in honor of Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Other past exhibits include a collaboration with the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park to create Handbags for Hillary, which showcased the purses created for former first lady, secretary of state, and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; A Walk in Her Shoes, chronicling 100 years of women’s footwear; and Changing Tides: 100 Years of Iconic Swimwear.
Esse Purse Museum seeks to educate its visitors about how purses and other fashion items are significant to women and their changing world, stating on its website: “A purse is not just a utilitarian bag in which a woman carries her necessities, but an extension of her personal space, her essence, and of the things that make her ‘her.’ Visitors will discover that the choice of purse tells much about the woman and her evolving position in the public sphere.”
In January 2020, USA Today put the museum on its list of ten notable “unique and quirky” museums in the country.
For additional information:
Davis, Anita. What’s Inside? A Century of Women and Handbags, 1900–1999. Little Rock: Et Alia Press, 2018.
Esse Purse Museum. http://www.essepursemuseum.com/ (accessed January 21, 2020).
Nelson, Rex. “Anita Davis Finds Her Calling in Old Buildings, Placemaking, Purses and Cornbread.” Talk Business & Politics, May 16, 2016. http://talkbusiness.net/2016/05/anita-davis-finds-her-calling-in-old-buildings-placemaking-purses-and-cornbread/ (accessed January 21, 2020).
Schnedler, Jack. “Esse Purse Museum Shines Light on Women’s Rights.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 5, 2022, pp. 1E, 6E. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/apr/05/esse-purse-museum-shines-light-on-womens-rights/ (accessed April 5, 2022).
———. “It’s in the Bag.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 1, 2022, pp. 1E, 6E. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/feb/01/its-in-the-bag/ (accessed February 1, 2022).
Henderson State University
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