What makes a purse a miser’s purse?



  • Nineteenth-century miser’s purses developed from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century purses, which were also long and narrow with slit openings. These purses usually had one tied end and one rounded end, which may have developed from the practice of storing coins in the toe of a stocking in centuries prior.
  • In their time, miser’s purses were known as short purses or long purses (depending on their length), gentlemen’s purses, or purses.
  • Miser’s purse is a term that dates to the turn of the twentieth century, near the end of the purse’s popularity. It was inspired by the purse’s design, which made it very difficult to retrieve its contents.
  • Nineteenth-century miser’s purses were often made as single-element structures from silk net, crochet or knit, although other materials, such as leather, chain-link mesh, hair, and wool or velvet cloth, were sometimes used.
  • Although miser’s purses had faded from popular culture by the nineteen-teens, Arthur D. Little, a Cambridge industrialist, constructed two miser’s purses with threads made from animal byproducts in 1921. Little was inspired to make the purses after hearing someone quote Jonathan Swift’s adage, “You can’t make a silk purse of a sow’s ear.” His process was outlined in On the Making of Silk Purses from Sows’ Ears: A Contribution to Philosophy (Cambridge: Arthur Little, 1921).
  • Miser’s purses were made in myriad designs and colors. Some of the motifs for miser’s purses included renderings of animals, crosses, and paisleys. Red, blue, and green were popular colors for miser’s purses, the latter especially for men.
  • More information about miser’s purse designs may be found in the DesignFile e-book, The Miser's Purse



Purses in pink-purple hues were common in the late nineteenth century, after chemist William Henry Perkins discovered mauvine, a pink-purple aniline dye, in 1856.

Miser’s purse, American, late 19th century
Silk crochet, steel beads and rings
16 15/ 16 x 31 1/ 2 inches (43 x 80 centimeters)
Gift of the children of Mrs. Charles Custis Harrison, 1929-175-15
Philadelphia Museum of Art

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