Has Tax Day left you pinching your pennies? Then you may appreciate the secure storage offered by miser’s purses. These oblong purses often have small center slit openings with sliding rings to secure coins in the purses’ ends (though sometimes clasps are used). Although these purses have existed in various forms since the seventeenth-century, they developed the shape seen here in the early nineteenth century. At this time, miser’s purses were called short or long purses (based on their lengths, which were gender specific until the mid-nineteenth century), gentlemen’s purses, or purses. Their reputation as especially tight money holders earned them their “miserly” moniker.
Miser’s purses were made in myriad colors and patterns usually from silk net, knit, or crochet, though sometimes other materials were used. While many of these designs were purely ornamental, some were intended to make the purses more functional. This purse, for example, was worked in two different colors to help its wearer distinguish the contents of each end, for example, gold and silver coins.
Miser’s purses were deeply embedded in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular culture. They were often given as gifts to friends and family members, and were sometimes sold at fancy or fundraising fairs. The purses’ social functions were adapted by contemporary writers and artists, who used them as literary and artistic devices in their works. Purses appear to help young women capture the attention of male suitors, to serve as representations of filial or familial love, or to foreshadow marriages between characters. The purses and their makers were also parodied by satirists, often in negative depictions of women.
The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum has an impressive collection of miser’s purses, which I had the opportunity to study while a student in the History of Decorative Arts and Design graduate program, jointly run by Cooper-Hewitt and Parsons, the New School for Design. My research was recently published as The Miser’s Purse, a Cooper-Hewitt DesignFile eBook.
Laura L. Camerlengo is an Exhibitions Assistant with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Costume and Textiles department. She previously served as a fellow with the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Textiles department. She has a Master of Arts degree in the History of Decorative Arts and Design from Parsons, the New School for Design/Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.