ESSEnce of SoMA

WORDS Jeanni Brosius
IMAGES Jeanni Brosius and courtesy Nancy Nolan

Feb 1, 2023 | Featured, Travel


Anita Davis is a visionary when it comes to people and place, and she also happens to collect handbags. So many in fact, selections from her personal collection were featured in a traveling exhibit, “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses,” from 2006 to 2011.

When the exhibit was on display at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, Anita said it was the most attended exhibit the museum had ever had, which prompted the idea for her to make her collection a permanent exhibit. In 2013, Anita opened the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, one of only two purse museums in the world. The name Anita chose for the museum, ESSE, is derived from the Latin verb meaning “to be,” and Anita believes that a woman’s purse holds her identity.

A woman’s purse reflects her womanhood. These sacred and private handbags hold the essence of who she is. It carries her identity, her valuables, her memories and all the things that make her unique. Whether she carries an expensive designer purse or a vegan leather handbag, it tells a little about what she believes, how she feels and oftentimes her social status. The style of the handbag also reflects what is going on in the world at the time. During WWI, clothing was simpler, but handbags became more elaborate. In the 1920s, plastic became readily available allowed for novelty shapes, and of course, the glamour of Hollywood and magazines have always inspired a woman’s style. As fashion changes, the exterior of the bag may follow the trends, but the personal space inside of a woman’s purse stays the same.

Despite its name, the ESSE Purse Museum isn’t simply a museum of fashion history. It is a historical museum celebrating the progression of the 20th century American woman, decade by decade from 1900 to 1999, through the bags they carried and the contents inside them. Through the collection and artful displays, the ESSE Purse Museum portrays woman’s struggles, accomplishments, and the challenges of the era in which she lived.

One of the bags on display was found inside a wall during a renovation of an old home by a contractor. The purse still held its original contents, a mirror, glasses, and a tube of lipstick. “It’s about the women who came before you,” Anita says about the exhibit. “What women went through and the ones who have paved the way for us.”

In addition to over 300 purses (some from Anita’s personal collection, others donated), the museum also features four temporary exhibits, usually on a quarterly basis. These exhibits focus on a range of experiences and expressions that touch on the museum’s core mission of empowering and honoring all women.

One of the permanent art installations in the museum is what Anita describes as a stream of consciousness, depicting four female figures sitting with beautiful purses streaming from their minds, as if dreaming. Each purse is encased in an acrylic box, some appear to be floating, others attached to the wall.

The museum also offers a gift shop featuring ESSE logo items, high-quality and highly unusual handbags around the world, as well as jewelry, books, and other items handcrafted by local, national, and international artisans. Anita’s book, What’s Inside: A Century of Women and Handbags 1900 – 1999, is also available.

In and of itself, the museum is a worthy destination, but the surrounding businesses in Little Rock’s SoMa District, also known as SoMa, offer visitors a variety of dining and shopping options. Much of the revitalization of the district can be attributed to Anita.

A Murfreesboro native, Anita had a vision for this little downtown section of Little Rock. She believes the small “mom and pop” stores draw people in not only from Arkansas but those visiting from other states, too. She wanted a walkable neighborhood, and that is exactly what she has achieved through the acquisition of several buildings in the area which now house Boulevard Bread Company, Green Corner Store, Loblolly Creamery and Root Café. “I wanted it to be local things that are unusual,” Anita says. “It is revitalization with intent, some kind of reason, not just to make money. There had to be a philosophy behind it.”

That philosophy is food, art, and green living. All of which come into play with Anita’s creation of Bernice Garden, a tribute to her grandmother, Bernice. Anita created this green space to benefit the entire community.

“It was a Captain D’s, and it burned, leaving a blank lot,” she says. “I felt like the area needed a little oasis, more dirt and plants.” Anita worked with a landscape architect and stayed true to her philosophy. All the materials in the garden are locally recycled, and the roof collects rainwater that is funneled into a fifty-gallon cistern, providing a sustainable source of water for the plants. The garden provides a space for events as well as a weekly farmer’s market. Thanks to Anita’s vision, the SoMa District is now an eclectic, thriving, walkable, family friendly destination for shopping, dining, and one highly unusual museum, attracting visitors from all over the world.

The ESSE Purse Museum
1510 S. Main Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

SoMa District

Bernice Garden

Do South Magazine

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