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Susan Hill: In “Purse”suit of Happiness

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  What do you carry in your purse?

And what kind of a purse do you carry?

Colfax resident Susan Hill was interested in finding out answers to both questions when she presented a program, “In ‘Purse’suit of Happiness,” at the Grapevine Senior Center November 2 for members of the Merry Mixers Senior Citizens. 

Hill brought many of the purses in her collection to display during her presentation.

In our earliest history, pouches, bags and purses were used to store everyday items such as coins, alms and other pertinent items, including Bibles and holy relics, Hill said.

The purses were secured to a waist with a cord of leather or cloth. Very few of the early bags remain because they were made of biodegradable material, but evidence of early purses exists in tapestries and prints from that time, she said.

Both men and women carried purses, but in the 1700s men stopped carrying purses, except for game bags where they put the game they had hunted or early forms of briefcases or satchels for important papers, Hill said. 

Purses then became the domain of women, particularly chatelaine, which were women who were in charge of large houses. These women carried several long chains from a belt to which they attached coin purses and other important items, she said.

In the 1600s and 1700s, women’s clothing was described as voluminous, with many layers. The layers allowed one or two bags or pockets to be hidden underneath the skirts and worn in pairs, one on each hip, Hill said.

By the 1800s and 1900s, women carried handbags, purses, pouches, wallets, satchels, travel bags, briefcases and coin purses, she said. 

In the early 1900s, metal mesh purses were popular. In the 1930s, art déco purses were prominent. In the 1940s, purses displayed a wartime or military influence. In the 1950s, women started carrying larger bags, Hill said.

In the 1960s, women favored leather bags. In the 1970s, designer bags were popular, she said. 

Women are still carrying designer bags today that can be made out of a variety of materials, including velvet, wool and leather, Hill said. 

Many fashion designers make purses, including Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent.

In centuries past, tapestries were used as wall hangings to act as insulation in castles or to cover furniture or for ceremonial purposes. 

If the tapestry had holes in it, they cut them up into smaller pieces and made purses out of them to avoid having to scrap the entire tapestry, Hill said. 

On display

One of the purses Hill had on display was a dark green winter bag made out of wool that she thought was intended to be used with a matching coat. 

The largest bag she brought was a cat carrier bag with vent holes. Inside the cat carrier bag was a plush puppy purse. 

The smallest purses Hill brought were doll purses, such as a purse carried by a Barbie doll. 

She also had a denim bag, over the shoulder bags/courier bags, an oriental pouch and a beaded purse with no handle and no zipper that was meant to be carried folded over. 

Among the crocheted bags was what Hill called her “Jesse bag” made by Colfax resident Jesse Paff. Paff had ordered the tortoiseshell bottoms and then had crocheted the purses. The crocheted bags were popular in the 1950s and some of them had a leather bottom, she said.

Hill also brought a lamp that was shaped like a purse. She acquired the purse lamp purely by luck. One day, she had planned to take the bus from Bloomer to go to the casino but had somehow gotten the time wrong.  Not wanting to waste a trip to Bloomer, she went to a thrift sale, found the purse lamp and bought it for 50 cents. 

Hill’s oldest purse, believed to be from the 1800s, has a metal frame and also contains a mirror and a coin purse.

She has a Jacob Schindler purse, too, designed by Jacob Schindler of Colfax. 

“I mourn over a purse I found at the antique store (in Colfax). It was a small bag with a handle with Marilyn Monroe written on it. I tried to find out who he sold it to, but he couldn’t tell me,” Hill said.

“When we were young and stylish, we always had to have shoes and purses that matched,” noted Merry Mixers president Vicki Hendricks. 


“Charles Schulz (the creator of the Peanuts comic strip) always said ‘Happiness is a warm puppy.’ But I have my own saying, ‘happiness is a fancy purse full of chocolate,’” Hill said.

Hill presented clever, tiny little purses to the audience she had made out of colored paper, complete with handles. Each of the tiny handmade purses had a piece of wrapped chocolate inside. 

Several museums exist that are devoted to purses. One museum in California has purses that are a hundred years old. Other museums are located in New York, Amsterdam and Paris, Hill said.

The Sackrider virtual purse museum is a “museum” on a website,