I imagined that the Esse Purse Museum in the SoMa (South Main) neighborhood of Little Rock, Arkansas would be a museum about, well, purses.

And it is…but it isn’t…not really.

The exterior of the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is in an area called Soma or South Main Street. Pin

It is actually a museum about women.

Black letters on the white walls of the museum read: “Whats inside: A century of women and handbags.”

It is about women and society and the way that the daily lives of ordinary women have changed and evolved through the years.

The Esse Purse Museum tells the story of 20th century women through the purses that they carried as well as through the items that were contained within those purses.

You could say that it is the history of women in a handbag.

Interior of the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas.Pin

The purses are from the private collection of Arkansas native, Anita Davis.

According to the docent who showed us into the museum the purses used to be part of a traveling exhibit that criss-crossed the country for several years before Ms. Davis decided to make the SoMa (south Main) area of Little Rock their permanent home.

Dedicated purse museums are rare. There are only three in the world, one in Amsterdam, one in Seoul, and this one, the Esse Purse Museum, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The museum space is small, but modern and bright.

The purses and contents are creatively and beautifully displayed. The museum is well lit and everything is easy to see and interestingly presented.

There are display boxes dedicated to each decade of the 20th century. These display boxes contain purses and their contents artfully arranged.

There is also a written narrative on each of the showcases explaining what was going on in the world during that decade and how this might have been affecting the lives of women.

It is fascinating to see how the purses changed as the needs of the women who carried them evolved. In 100 years we have gone from carrying calling cards to cell phones and from smelling salts to birth control pills.

It was amazing to realize how much things have changed in the lives of women over 100 years. It was also amazing to realize how much is still the same.

The purses from the 70’s and 80’s were the ones that took me back…and aback. I remembered so many of those bags! I was a teenager in the 70’s and a young wife and mother in the 80’s. These were the handbags from my formative years.

There was one in particular, a brown fringed bag with turquoise beads that reminded me of one I carried when I was around 16 years old.

Sigh. I loved that purse! Now I wish I had kept it.

In addition to the decade showcases there are exhibits of evening bags, travel bags, and bags made of a variety of animal skins and fur. The evening bags were exquisite and just might have been my favorite. A small alcove houses the temporary exhibits. The current one is all about hats and hat pins.

Betsy Davis, the daughter of the author, has a series of paintings that hang simply along the wall that depict women from each decade carrying one of the displayed purses. I was impressed with the way she captured the nature of a woman who might have carried that particular handbag.

The entire museum manages to be both charming and thought-provoking. It made me realize how little the day to day lives of women are represented in most museums…how little the day to day lives of women are represented in the historical record.

The museum building also houses a store. A purse store of course.

Some of the purses are handcrafted, some are designer, all are carefully selected. I was pleased to find that there were a variety of price ranges. They also sell jewelry and items that could be great gifts or souvenirs.

Purses for sale in the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock, ArkansasPin

The owner of the purse museum, Anita Davis, owns a few other buildings around the museum and has been instrumental in the revitalization of this area of Little Rock. This was once a street of boarded up windows in a neighborhood that most people would have deemed unsafe.

It has now become popular and trendy enough to have gained a nickname – SoMa or South Main.

In addition to the Esse Purse Museum some of the best and most unique restaurants and shops in Little Rock are located in SoMa. There is a distillery, a bakery, and live music.

Bernice Gardens is a sculpture park which acts as the heart of the street. A weekly farmer’s market is hosted there and it becomes a staging area for local events selected to bring the community together.

After your visit to the Esse Purse Museum I would suggest having lunch at either The Root Cafe which is right next door or walk across the street to Boulevard Bread Company.

For dessert stop into Loblolly Creamery and have a delicious ice cream and then pop into the Green Corner Store to check out their USA and local sustainably made goods.

We also have a list of many more of the fascinating museums in Arkansas.

If you have children here is a list of some of our favorite things to do with kids in Little Rock.

If you are exploring the state of Arkansas and like art a visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a MUST. If you love archeology or Indian artifacts check out the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park.

You can learn about more museums in Little Rock as well as outdoor activities, shopping and restaurants in this bucket list of things to do in Little Rock!

Hope you enjoy!

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