Laura L. Camerlengo
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Miser’s purses are among many unusual and little-known costume accessories that pervade today’s museum collections. These small purses with center slit openings and sliding rings or clasp closures were ubiquitous throughout the nineteenth century. As guidebooks, magazines, paintings, prints, works of literature and satire, and other ephemera from the period reveal, these purses and their unique social and symbolic roles were entrenched in contemporary culture.
- What makes a purse a miser’s purse?
- Gifts for giving, items for sale
- Symbolism and significance
- Further resources
This silk crochet miser’s purse was worked in ombré roll stitches, a technique popular for miser’s purses in the 1870s.
Miser’s purse, American, late 1870s
Green and brown silk crochet in roll stitch, steel beads, metal rings
11 by 3 3/4 inches (27.9 by 9.5 centimeters)
Gift of Historic Strawberry Mansion, 2010-180-13
Philadelphia Museum of Art
What makes a purse a miser’s purse?
- Miser’s purses are distinguished by their center slit openings with sliding rings or clasp closures. To see a miser’s purse in use, watch this demonstration from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
- 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
Gifts for giving, items for sale
Largely used to store coins, miser’s purses were often given as gifts to friends and family, and sold at charitable fundraisers.
- The purses were made by women, but given to and used by both women and men.
- Men would have stored their purses in the pockets of their breeches, jackets or coats, while women would have kept their purses in their skirt pockets or bags.
- Women’s magazine writers frequently recommended miser’s purses as gifts for friends and family members for birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions.
- The purses were also given to prospective suitors as tokens of affection in courtship.
- The highly-decorated purses were considered ideal items to sell at contemporary fundraising or fancy fairs as they were very eye-catching and inexpensive to make.
Symbolism and significance
- Miser’s purses often appear in nineteenth-century paintings, and works of literature and satire.
- Their roles as gifts and commodities were adapted for situations of courtship and marriage in these contexts. They also sometimes served as representations of familial relationships or to negatively depict social-climbing women.
- Some contemporary novels mention miser’s purses in courtships, usually to foreshadow marriages between characters. These include James Fenimore Cooper’s Precaution (1820), Caroline Lee Hentz’s Helen and Arthur, or, Miss Thusa’s Spinning Wheel (1853), and Horatio Alger Jr.’s The Store Boy, or, The Fortunes of Ben Barclay (1887).
- A miser’s purse serves as a representation of a man’s loyalty to his wife and family in Ford Madox Brown’s painting, The Last of England (1852–1855). In the painting, the husband/father figure clutches a red-and-gold miser’s purse along with his wife’s hand as he emigrates with his family from England to Australia.
- In works of satire, such as Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz (1836) and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–1848) miser’s purses are used to mock women who attempt to marry above their social class. The purses also often reveal the ignoble intentions of one or both parties in a courtship.
Fancy fair women and their miser’s purses were the subject of artistic interpretations as well. In James Collinson’s painting For Sale (c. 1855 – 1860), a well-dressed young woman stands in front of a fair stall holding a maroon-and-silver miser’s purse in her left hand and one of the purse’s rings in her right hand. Her elaborate attire, handling of the purse’s ring (as if she were going to place it on her finger), and direct gaze at the viewer suggest that she is trying to attract attention, perhaps from a possible suitor. A more detailed examination of the painting and its miser’s purse may be found in The Miser's Purse.
Horatio Alger, Jr., The Store Boy, or, The Fortunes of Ben Barclay (1887; reprint, Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2006)
Anne Buck, Victorian Costume and Costume Accessories (New York: Universe Books, 1970)
Laura Camerlengo, ‘The Miser’s Purse,’ The Berg Fashion Library (2012), doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/BEWDF/EDch8511
Laura Camerlengo, The Miser's Purse (New York: DesignFile, 2013)
Laura Camerlengo, ‘The Victorian Miser’s Purse,’ 19th Century 30, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 17–22.
James Fenimore Cooper, Precaution: A Novel (1820; reprint, Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2006)
Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, ed. Dennis Walder (1836; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 1995)
Evelyn Haertig, Antique Combs and Purses (Carmel: Gallery Graphics Press, 1983)
Caroline Lee Hentz, Helen and Arthur, or, Miss Thusa’s Spinning Wheel (1853; reprint, Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008)
Lydia Lambert, The Handbook of Needlework, Decorative and Ornamental, Including Crochet, Knitting, and Netting, 5th ed. (London: John Murray, 1846)
On the Making of Silk Purses from Sows’ Ears: A Contribution to Philosophy (Cambridge:Arthur Little, 1921)
Matilda Marian Pullan, Lady’s Manual of Fancywork: A Complete Instructor in Every Variety of Ornamental Needle-work (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1859)
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1847–1848; reprint, New York: Bantam Books, 2006)