It’s what’s inside that counts

By Stefanie Brazile

The contents of women’s purses are as unique as the women who carry them, often to the detriment of their shoulders and necks. Collector Anita Davis believes that what’s inside the bag reveals what’s important to the woman.

Anita Davis, Founder of the ESSE Purse Museum & Store

In 2013, the ESSE Purse Museum & Store opened in Little Rock’s SoMa neighborhood as part of a walkable, funky, family-friendly area south I-630.  

“Anita Davis has been collecting purses for more than 30 years,” museum director Ally Weaver said. “As she travelled across the country by car to visit her daughters, she would stop at antique malls and flea markets and noticed that there were all these wonderful bags that nobody was paying attention to, so she started buying them and giving them a home — collecting them that way. 

“After years and years of doing that, she realized that the purse is really a container for the feminine,” Weaver said. “So that’s how the concept of having a women’s history museum told through the purse came to be.”

The privately owned, brightly lit space offers a visual parade, captivating to both women and men. The staff used the pandemic as an opportunity to rework existing exhibits which are separated by decade from 1900 through 1990.  

Added bonuses include an exhibit about purses women use for travel, another that focuses on glamorous evening wear, and a third that features purses made of exotic skins and furs. Additionally, the staff creates vibrantly colored temporary exhibits several times a year that are a feast for the eyes. 

“Even for people who have been here before, it’s very new, very fresh,” Weaver said.

The swinging ’60s reveal developing pop and contemporary ideas, along with the beginnings of labels on bags. The museum has a pair of early bags from Gucci and Coach.

As a collector of hundreds of purses dating back to the early 1900s, Davis decided to open some of the bags and use them as time capsules, honoring women and revealing the external factors that caused them to choose what they needed to carry around. 

“It’s what’s inside that counts — what’s important to each individual — and that’s where the name ‘ESSE’ came from,” Weaver said. “In Latin, that means ‘to be,’ and so Anita chose that because she feels that a purse carries a woman’s essence of who she is.”

Perfect for a day trip for family members or a group of friends, the ESSE Purse Museum & Store is one of only two purse museums in the world, with the other being in Seoul, South Korea. There is no cost to shop in the store and museum tickets are $8 for students, seniors, and military, and $10 for adults. Group discounts are available and details can be obtained by calling ahead. Masks are required and updates are available at They are open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. They accept purse donations with details available on the website.