It’s the only one of its kind in the United States and one of only three in the world. Located on Main Street in Little Rock is the ESSE Purse Museum. Laura Hardy, public relations director, says when people learn about it, “The reaction is usually like, ‘What the heck is a purse museum’ or, ‘Oh my gosh that is so cool.”
Hardy is one of a handful of women responsible for oveseeing its operations. She said having similar museums in Amsterdam and Seoul, South Korea has made ESSE more well-known internationally than it is to many locals. Part history lesson, part women’s empowerment, part fashion statement, the nearly two-year old museum is like many purses - full of surprises.
“It also holds a little bit of mystique,” said founder and owner Anita Davis, “because most people are afraid to go into a woman’s purse without permission.”
Davis, a long-time resident of Little Rock, decided to give her collection of purses a brick and mortar home after it successfully toured through national museums for several years. Immediately after ESSE’s opening, travel writers added it to the list of the hottest new museums of 2014 along with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
Davis believes the appeal is universal. "You see the victories and celebrations and the struggles that women have had, so it’s actually an education," Davis said. "It also makes you think about women in your life and your own identity because a handbag or a purse holds a woman’s identity."
With handbags made from dustpans, phone cords, and bottle caps as well as more traditional materials, ESSE strives to tell the story of the American woman.
Former museum intern Kendra Ide still enjoys bringing first-time visitors to the shop. "It’s really interesting from a historical point of view to watch how purses and fashion correlate and change with the historical movement of women through the past century," Ide said.
The ESSE building houses both the museum and a gift shop. There are, of course, plenty of purses for sale, but even the retail area is more than it seems. Morgan Hill, the Creative Director of the Museum Store, said the items for sale, many of which are hand-crafted or unique, are intentionally chosen to support the overall mission.
"We’re not gonna not buy things from men, but most of the artists are women who are making personal accessories. So it’s the same mission as the museum: to support women and show their growth and development throughout history.”
All of the women running the museum said men often enjoy the experience more than they initially expect. Devin Williams said the nostalgia evoked by looking through historical artifacts is shared by everyone.
"The emotional response and journey that you can go through as you make your way through the museum, I think that’s something that’s a more subtle aspect of the museum, and it’s always surprising.” Davis also points out other commonalities as well as a new fashion trend specific to men: the man purse, or "murse."
"We all have so many things that we’re carrying around, men and women. And the urban men are more comfortable carrying murses," said Davis. She pointed out that there are “no rule” when it comes to who can carry a murse or purse. It depends on the comfort level of the person carrying it.
In addition to purses and their contents, Esse showcases traveling exhibits related to women’s history. An assortment of Barbie dolls and their clothing is showing until January 4th.
At any given time only 20% of the total collection of handbags is on display. Davis said she rotates them on a whim, so you’re always likely to find something new in the nation’s only purse museum.