It's amazing to see how the evolution of handbags since the beginning of the 20th Century is reflective of how women have changed throughout the years.
That's what the Esse Purse Museum in the heart of SoMa at 1510 S. Main St., Little Rock, is really all about.
I had a chance to tour this brand-new museum -- just the third purse museum in the world -- which celebrates a whole century of magnificent handbags, from super tiny wristlets from the early 1900s to the oversized military-style bags in the 1990s.
The extensive collection is owned by Anita Davis, owner of hot spots in SoMa like The Bernice Garden and the buildings that house Boulevard Bread Co., The Green Corner Store and Root Cafe.
She has been collecting purses for close to 30 years, museum director Sara Drew said, and in this exhibit, you'll find close to 250 bags altogether, categorized in different decades, as well as three special exhibits that focus on the traveling woman, a night out on the town and all about skins (which, of course, features all of the skins you're used to -- snake and leather -- and some exotic skins you may not have seen before).
And it's all in a super-chic and minimalist setting -- white-washed brick walls, black floors and beautiful works of art, aka handbags, in cases that are lined up by decades. You'll also find purses singled out in glass boxes dangling from the ceiling, adding some variety to the exhibit.
"We start at the 20th Century handbags and [focus on] American women -- the history of American women as told their purses," Drew said.
The museum has been a long time in the making. She said that Davis' private collection traveled around the United States in a temporary exhibit, visiting 26 museums from coast to coast.
"Because it was so successful, she thought it would be a successful permanent exhibit," Drew said.
Davis began looking for properties and the spot right on Main Street was perfect for combining all of her items, bags and accessories, Drew said. A few years ago, Davis and others began restoring the building, hiring Drew on to recurate the exhibit, organizing it into actual decades.
It opened in late June with great response and it could not have happened, Drew said, without the help of Steven Otis, the art director and exhibit designer; Lara Kahlr, the gift shop manager; Laura Hardy, the media relations person on the team who helped research the decades; and architect Kwendeche.
In addition to the 4,000-purse collection, Davis also had collected accessories found in these one-of-a-kind and common purses.
"She fell in love with the bags and as she bought them, she would find stuff in the bags and that became a collection of accessories," Drew said.
So, as you go through the L-shaped exhibit, cases not only showcase the various handbags of the time period, but also common things woman would carry at the time. Each exhibit is a treasure trove of women's history and it gets more fascinating as you move along.
What are Sara's favorite handbags?
"My favorite exhibit is the teens, from 1910 to 1919," she said. "That's my favorite stylistic decade -- it's about arts and crafts and art nouveau, [and] there are plenty of curved and linear lines, nature-inspired and handmade [pieces]."
Bottom line: This unique spot is a history lesson for all and is a must-see.
"[The exhibit] is the evolution of women’s liberation and the purses symbolize what’s really going on in women’s lives," Drew said.
Admission to the museum is $10 for adults; $8 for seniors 60 years and older, students 5 - 18 years old and members of the military; and free for children 5 and under.
The museum also houses a store that sells high-end and lower-priced handcrafted purses and some that are vintage purses, as well as scarves, jewelry, books and notecards.
Hours are 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Stay up-to-date with the museum on its Facebook page here. Call (501) 916-9022 for more information.