In the Spring of 2016, Valparaiso University’s Material Culture class studied artifacts from the Porter County Museum Collection, giving detailed historical context to some of our most unique and insightful artifacts. Thanks to Dr. Buggeln, Valparaiso University, the PoCo Muse collections volunteers, and the students for all the work and dedication put into this project.
The following research was compiled by Kelly Rayner:
Cultures, Women, and Revolutions
Unlike other objects at the Porter County Museum, the beautiful beaded handbag didn’t have a discernable story; instead it had been left on the steps of the museum in a box of rationing books from World War II. There was talk of it possibly being from that era, however that was not the case. The style of the 40’s was about frugality and rationing in times of war, while this bag, with its silk interior and delicate glass beads, screams of prosperity and frivolity. It is more likely that the bag was used in the 1920s during the evolution of the Flapper aesthetic.
During the 20th century, manufacturing had become more efficient and fashion was beginning to change much more rapidly than it had in previous centuries. By the 1920s, bags began to take on the appearance of what we now recognize as the handbag. The styles of the 20s included delicate looking handbags with lots of glass beads and silk linings. This is where the bag at the Porter County Museum appears to fit the most. Beaded handbags often had bold, eye-catching designs. The silk lining was strong so the woman carrying it would not have to worry that the lining would tear or deform from use. For the most part, the bags did not have straps but, much like the name implies, were carried in the hand or under the arm. The beading design was reminiscent of the Flapper adaptation of ancient Egyptian culture, a trend that was very popular with the rebellious women of the 20’s.
However, it is unlikely that the conservative Christian community of Porter County during the early 1900s saw very many outrageously rebellious women during this time, decked out in Egyptian makeup and showing their ankles. So maybe the woman who bought the handbag at the museum wasn’t looking to complete an exact flapper look. By adding the handbag to her collection, the woman was possibly looking to define a youthful moment, a movement for power, or the excitement with a new discovery. She didn’t have to cut her hair short or wear heavy makeup or even dress in less conservative clothing. Instead she could tuck her stuff away in the pouch of the handbag and take it out on the town with her and in that way she was telling society that she was ready to take on the world and become her own woman. The Flapper movement rejected the traditionally male concept of how a woman should live and allowed women to make their choices and have their own rights. Many women chose to accessorize with items that were associated with the Egyptian Revival and the masculine Flapper movements, wearing them as badges of their goal to gain equal rights as men. The handbag at the Porter County Museum would have created the image of freedom every time it moved in the woman’s hands. Its movement was soft and the beads would have shimmered, declaring independence no matter how the woman clutched the bag.