ARKANSAS SIGHTSEEING: ESSE Purse Museum displays the female experience with accessories

It's in the bag

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JOHN SYKES JR. - 032719 - Emily Hadland, (CQ) exhibit Coordinator for the Esse Purse Museum, talks about the new exhibit, Remembrances: History seen through entrusted objects? at the museum on Main Street in Little Rock. More photos at

ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock's SoMa district gives visitors a chance to do a weight check — but not of themselves. In an alcove painted red, a scale hangs from the ceiling near a big-type invitation: "Weigh your bag."

An information panel asks, "Is your bag too heavy?" Listed along with that question are six burden-easing suggestions from a Little Rock chiropractor. They include having multiple compartments to help weight distribution and wearing a wide shoulder strap over the shoulder opposite the purse.

One piece of advice might require later use of a bathroom scale: "Keep the weight of your purse between 5% and 10% of your body weight."

The handbag weigh-in is ­lagniappe to ESSE's main mission, stated on its website, of telling "the evolution of 20th-century woman through the bags she carried and their contents." The staff is headed by founder and owner Anita Davis and director Ally Short Weaver. The online prospectus conveys a feminist tone:

"We are not simply showcasing accessories but rather making HERstory tangible and familiar. It is often the smallest details, the scribbled notes in the margins of our history that truly encompass the female experience. As our museum takes you on the journey of the 20th-century woman, it is not only the sense of nostalgia but also the sense of solidarity that you will feel."

The permanent exhibit "honors and celebrates the progression of the 20th-century American woman — decade by decade — through the lens of her handbag and the contents within. Through the collection and artful display of this material culture, as well as with the help of photography and ephemera, ESSE provides a contemplative portrayal of the woman's struggles, accomplishments, and more sweepingly, the times in which she lived."

Visitors are spared such didactic messaging from the exhibits themselves, at what is said to be America's only purse museum. Updated during a closing after covid-19's 2020 advent, the permanent collection does a sprightly job of providing wider social and cultural context. Purses in many sizes and shapes play the starring role, but numerous other objects tell fuller stories as 10 glass display cases move through the 20th century.

ESSE further brightens its fare with temporary exhibits. The latest, which opened Jan. 25 and continues through Feb. 20, is "Miniature Couture." The last of the museum's three-part "The Collectors' Series," it displays dolls belonging to Little Rock collector Marsha Stone.

  photo  Purses from the Roaring ’20s are displayed at ESSE Purse Museum. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler)  By the museum's account, the new exhibit "offers visitors a window onto the world of high-end fashion dolls. With bodies sculpted to mimic those of top models, fashion dolls are a convenient way for many designers to test out new, extravagant styles. Although they average just 14 inches tall, these dolls seem like they could step right out of the case and onto a runway."

Visitors old enough to have attended high school when Latin was still widely taught may correctly guess that the museum's name is borrowed from the ancient verb "esse," meaning "to be." In the website's phrasing, "the concept of being, the process and potential of existence — these serve as the catalysts for honoring the feminine."

That may sound highfalutin', but ESSE's exhibits do offer plenty of down-to-earth fun along with the cultural lessons. Visitors might even be inspired to buy a purse from the well-stocked shop paired with the museum.

ESSE Purse Museum

  • Address: 1510 S. Main St., Little Rock
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
  • Admission: $10 for visitors ages 7 to 59, $8 for students and those 60 or older, free for youngsters under 6.
  • Information: (501) 916-9022;