My mother’s purse, when I was a child, was not much smaller than a pillowcase. It was seemingly bottomless, a black hole encased in olive green leather and fashioned into a style I now know is sometimes called a bucket bag or, less flatteringly, a “feed sack.”
Within said sack, one could find comfort (candy and Kleenex), activity (pens and paper), wealth (a small fortune in change), health (a variety of medical supplies) and much more.
I remember marvelling at how and why my mother carried so much. On the occasions I was sent to fetch her purse, I could barely lift it.
Everyone warns that women become their mothers, but no one prepares you for the fact you will also end up carrying her purse.
I was paying for a massage treatment recently when the massage therapist looked accusingly across the counter at my bag. “Do you carry that all the time?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. She reached across to test its weight. “Well, that’s why your shoulder is sore.”
Thanks to a kitchen scale, I’ve since learned my purse floats around five pounds, and goes up to seven if I have a notebook and a recorder. On the waybill is my wallet (just over a pound) and a variety of pens (half a pound), as well as a portable keyboard, keys, glasses and a copy of the New Yorker (another pound combined).
I carry my purse virtually every time I leave the house and when you think about lugging that amount of weight, it really does seem like a lot. Were all my friends carrying this much? I had no idea, so I started asking women what they had in their bags.
I learned there were socks, toys, food, a book, Band-Aids, Tylenol, a sewing kit, a packet of soy sauce, business cards, tampons, “random garbage” and “several hundred dollars’ worth of lipstick” – and that was all in the same purse.
Other women I know are carrying a crystal, a Swiss army knife, an EpiPen, pediatric antihistamine, a reflex hammer, an eyelash curler, lotion, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a toque, a dice game called Pocket Farkel, batteries, crayons, a wide variety of children’s clothing, a cat deworming pill, a cat toy, dog treats, a rock, an empty syringe, a fishing lure, seeds, perfume, and a mbira, a musical instrument with 24 keys played in Zimbabwe.
“We are taught not to go into someone else’s purse without permission, because the purse is a private thing,” says Nikki Menn, curator of an exhibition of historic handbags opening in May at the Women’s Museum of California in San Diego. “So no one really talks about it, but it’s super interesting, because we all carry a purse.”
Menn says the modern purse dates back to the First World War when women started to enter the workforce, and Suffragettes popularized leather shoulder bags as women became increasingly independent.
“They needed to be more mobile and their handbags needed to meet a growing variety of practical needs,” Menn says. “Before – say in the latter half of the 1800s – women were just carrying really small bags that would hold a compact or a key or something, one or two items in a very, very small evening bag. It’s after women are feeling that surge of independence that the handbag becomes more of what it is today.”
Why do we carry the things we carry? Well, we could get a bit philosophical there I guess.
You don’t have to think about it long before you end up considering the broader burdens of women, wondering why so many of us are weighed down with the tools of our work and our health and our appearance, carrying emergency supplies for our children and our cats and dogs and other people, to be able to help and comfort and sustain ourselves and others.
Is there something to be found in the weight of all that? Something unfair about carrying so much? Maybe.
But, as I considered each item in my bag, the only thing I found to eliminate was some cards and paper and one lipstick, barely enough to move the scale.
All last week I intended to try going purse-less like my cousin and my friend Neda – “It changed my life, and you can quote me on that!” Neda enthused – but I chickened out every time I got to the door. What if I needed something in my bag?
In fact, I found myself inspired by some of the things my friends were carrying. It actually seems like a good idea to more regularly carry snacks and a bottle of water and an extra sweater and some sunscreen. How was I walking around without a lint roller and some stain remover? What about a shawl? One of my friends carries a tape measure. How handy is that! My friend Lisa has a flask of anCnoc in her purse. I don’t even know what that is, but now I want to carry a flask of it. (Note: I looked it up. It’s whisky.)
In desperation, I Googled “what heavy purses do” hoping for some dire medical illustration that would scare me into a radical purse purge. But Google instead provided me the opinion that one’s purse can weigh up to 10 per cent of your body weight. “So if you’re 140 pounds, your bag and its contents shouldn’t be more than 14 pounds,” it advised.
Suddenly my tiny five-pound purse seemed almost laughably light. Sure, there were some other links below that seemed to be about back problems, but I really didn’t feel the need to keep digging. Instead, I think I’ll grab that lint roller, measuring tape and flask of anCnoc.
It’s a big world, after all. And sometimes there’s a lot to carry through it.