LauraCamerlengoAbstract.doc - Smithsonian

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        Purses, of all shapes, sizes, and designs, were the preeminent monetary storage device for men

and women of the Victorian era, and the miser’s purse was perhaps the most ubiquitous in nineteenth-

century culture. This small, highly decorative purse is a particularly compelling type of object because,

unlike other purses, it was deeply embedded in Victorian popular culture. As seen in hundreds of

contemporary sources, the crafting, giving, receiving, sale, and use of the miser’s purse reflected specific

social mores, and conveyed certain meanings, to the Victorians. This information, though, has remained

largely unknown to present-day scholars as, to date, very little has been written about the miser’s purse.

        By citing references to miser’s purses found in nineteenth-century literature and paintings, as well

as non-fictional accounts of these accessories found in fancywork guides, etiquette guides, and women’s

magazines, the author examines the personal, social, literary and artistic functions of the Victorian miser’s

purse. Among these sources are important contemporary works, including the fictional writings of

Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Makepeace Thackeray; paintings by James

Collinson and Ford Madox Brown; the pre-eminent American magazines Godey’s Lady’s Book, Harper’s

New Monthly Magazine, and Peterson’s Magazine; as well as popular etiquette and fancywork guides by

Lydia Lambert and Matilda Pullan.

        By this approach, the miser’s purse is shown to be a separate and distinct accessory from other

contemporary purses and bags, and its social and symbolic roles are explored. Not only was the miser’s

purse emblematic of the Victorian era and its domestic ideologies, but it also embodied the culture’s gift-

giving modes. The author explains how these social functions were adapted by Victorian writers and

artists into the works they produced. Both the crafting and giving of purses functioned as important

literary and artistic devices, often to teach a moral lesson, to help young women to capture the attention of

male suitors, to serve as a representation of filial love, or to foreshadow marriages between literary

        This study of contemporary cultural sources also contextualizes extant miser’s purses from six

museum collections, and accurately attributes select purses from these collections to particular periods

and styles, often by comparing them to surviving Victorian purse patterns.

        Ultimately, the author shows that the miser’s purse was an object deeply embedded in nineteenth-

century popular culture, and how the making, giving, receiving, sale, and use of the miser’s purse was

emblematic of the Victorian era.

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