A Very Special Donation
I’ve worked at ESSE for a few months now. One of my duties is cataloguing purse donations for
Anita’s collection. Friends of ESSE will stop by to give bags from their mothers and
grandmothers or pass on funky finds from thrift stores or estate sales. To learn about the origin of
the bag, who carried it (or who we guess carried it), and stories associated with the bag has been
such a useful and meaningful process in my inaugural months working at ESSE—I’ve been able
to truly grasp what ESSE is all about:
memory, comfort, and connection.
One donor in particular has left a special imprint on my mind …
A woman named Ann emailed me asking if ESSE would be interested in receiving some purse
donations from her friend John’s mother. Ann described that she was helping John go through his
mother’s belongings after her recent passing in May 2017. John’s mother had drawer-fulls of
neatly tucked purses from her 97 years of life and they did not want to simply drop them off at a
thrift store. We set up a time for them to come by ESSE with some of the purses.
When Ann and John arrived they brought with them a box full of handbags of various sizes,
shapes, colors, and materials. Most were in impeccable shape. John started telling me about his
mother, Polly Norrell. According to John, Polly was always dressed to the nines when going out.
She was outgoing and the life of the party. Even at age 97 she wore jeans, heels, and full
makeup—including her last day in late May when decorations were hung and she was all ready
to host her the annual Memorial Day party.
Ann told me that the purses they brought that day were only a fraction of Polly’s collection. As
John and Ann were talking and as I was carefully inspecting some of the bags, opening and
closing each one, I noticed most had tissues stuffed inside to hold shape. One bag held tissues
with a bright pink lipstick stain and I immediately imagined Polly blotting her lipstick on the
way out for the night. This gave me chills, because in an instant I felt like I knew her. In a way I
did know her, because I knew her purse.
At ESSE we are often asked if we have a lot of male visitors to the purse museum. We don’t –but
I wish we did. The men that do visit are some of our biggest fans. My encounter with John
reminded me that men, as often as women, can feel that sense of nostalgia from a purse. The
memory, the comfort, the connection.
John returned later that week with Polly’s obituary. We learned that Polly was a businesswoman
and a huge community volunteer. She was “a beautiful person inside and out. She lived life to the
fullest. Whether throwing an elaborately themed dinner party for her friends or dancing the night
away at a charity ball, Polly made every moment special.”
Her legacy of making special moments is living now through John, Ann, and her handbags here
at ESSE Purse Museum.