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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.

Fig.01


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?

 

 

 

Fig.02


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.

 



Symbolism and significance

 

 

 

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.

 



Further Resources


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)