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Have you ever taken a moment to wonder how your handbag of today compares to one from the last century? Perhaps about a half century ago? Take a look at an article that first appeared in the New York Times Magazine on January 21, 1945, reprinted here from the archives of National Fashion Accessories Association, Inc. As NFAA states:

In 1945, President Roosevelt was in the White house as World War II raged on. Shortages in food and materials were the course of the day. Women were for the first time entering the work force in large numbers. World War II made ration stamps and V-mail a common part of a woman's personal items, which she carried dearly wherever she went. Today, as E-mail replaces V-mail it becomes ever apparent how much society and the world around us has changed. As hair nets and embroidered handkerchiefs disappeared from the handbag, credit cards and electronic devices have taken its place.

Today, this is an amusing look back on how a woman's handbag was perceived half a century ago. Many of the references remain true today, yet others have lost their meaning along with the innocence of that era. But the fundamental reasons handbags have remained so important are perfectly summed up in this article. How have the changes over the course of 50 years impacted what a woman carries with her today? Change in the world of style, technology and culture have greatly influenced what you might find residing in a handbag of the early 2000s. In addition to being a fashion statement, today's handbags must provide much more than beauty: they must be large, sturdy and functional to support the many needs that fill women's modern lives. In fact, many women carry more than one bag, which is completely different than times past. For many women, one bag is simply not enough for the wide variety of their activities. They may also need business cases, tote bags, computer bags, or athletic bags in addition to their handbag. While the contents and amount of bags have changed, there are still some things that remain the same - including the importance of a woman's handbag.

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The original copy of this story is from the NFAA archives.
Printed January 21, 1945, The New York Times, by Anita Daniel
circa 1945

Inside Story of a Handbag

Chapters of the mysterious science of bagology which is said to throw new light on the ways of womankind.

A woman without her handbag feels as lost as a wanderer in the desert. And she wants it large. If she cannot get it in leather-now growing scarce-she will take it in fabric, fur, or even plastic. The handbag is the movable base of her supplies-the depot of her expected needs. These eventual needs may reach out to a degree far beyond any man's power of imagination. A woman's handbag is a mysterious dungeon. It's the key to her real self; the prosaic answer to many poetic conceptions.

A magician does not want to explain his tricks. There is an aura of taboo about a closed handbag. Every woman has an uneasy look if somebody glances into its sacred privacy. A decent man should always tactfully stare at the ceiling whenever his companion opens her bag. He will, of course, have to concentrate on that ceiling pretty often. The typical handbag of a typical woman contains a certain number of fundamental things-plus her own individual touch. It is that individual touch that fills the bag. Some item is pretty sure to roll out the moment the bag is opened.

Every woman's handbag is a lost and found department in itself. It is strange, but things actually disappear there, as by magic. They finally reappear on the surface after three or four investigations and complete pell-mell of the contents. Every bus driver is fatalistically resigned to having a lady barring the passage while searching for a nickel in the depths of her handbag. And every man knows about the two-minute drama ever repeated: "Heavens, I must have lost my watch...(or my twenty-dollar bill, my keys, that important letter, etc.,etc.)!" It usually has a happy ending. Nothing gives a man more self-satisfaction than such an experience. The whole myth of the superiority of men is built on the fact that a man never carries a handbag. Men keep women in eternal dependence by buying them beautiful handbags. What female heart would not melt at the sight of a luscious alligator bag, or soft suede or brocade?

A man carriers everything in his numerous comfortably deep pockets. It is estimated that a man wearing a suit with a vest and an overcoat has twenty pockets. No wonder he can never lose anything!

Women have also adapted pockets to their suits and coats. But the most genuine are just fit to put hands into. The others are good enough for a chiffon handkerchief to peep out of or they are faked. No woman's suit pocket is meant to hold her belongings. Every bulge would endanger the slim line and the smart effect. So women continue to carry handbags. As long as women do not wear men's suits with pockets, they will remain women. And men will continue to feel superior. The first thing Adam purchased for Eve was a handbag. It was his sweet revenge for the apple.

A young man I knew-the sensitive type-once told me that he was about to propose to a girl, when, accidentally, he had a glance into her handbag. It shocked him to such a degree that he spontaneously canceled his proposal. His whole image of the pretty girl had changed after he had seen the untidiness of her powder-dusted, lipstick-spotted handbag. Worst of all, a fruit drop had stuck to the lining.

Money is the thing you will miss most frequently in a woman's handbag. Nowadays it is hardly worth while for pickpockets to steal it, except for the fact that an astonishing number of women carry their precious belonging in handbags. They do it for fear they may be stolen from closets or drawers. That is why we read so often of handbags lost in taxicabs, containing jewels worth thousands of dollars. It is a strange time when women wear junk jewelry around their necks and carry their precious jewelry in the zippered department of their handbags.

Some psychologists think the way a woman carries her bag is characteristic. "Bagology" is quite a science. There is the strap type, the shoulder-strap type and the woman who tucks her bag under her arm. There are a great number of women who hold their bags both by the straps and pressed under the arm.

Seen from the psychologist's angle, the way a woman carriers her purse demonstrates the entire scale of characteristics, from light-mindedness and generosity to caution and greediness. One analyst warns men against women who keep their bag rolled around the wrist and the hand firmly clasped around the lock.

In the good old times, when the definition of a "lady" covered very definite limitations, it was ladylike to carry as little as possible. In sentimental English novels of the last century, whenever a lady opened her bag it was to give money to the poor. Or to take out a small prayerbook, an embroidered handkerchief or a tiny bottle of smelting salts, as it was considered very ladylike to faint once in a while. Today's ladies have a far more varied program.

The first time I saw Mrs. Roosevelt I was deeply impressed by the sight of her bag. There stood the First Lady, very tall, very straight, very distinguished in her gray tailored suit. In one hand she carried roses that had been presented to her; in the other, her bag. What a bag! It was of dark leather and of tremendous dimension, practically bursting with invisible contents. It clearly spoke of the activities of the First Lady. One glance and you knew the President's wife had a full-time job.

The contents of a handbag...revealed.
1945 The typical handbag of a typical woman in 1945 contained:
One or two lipsticks
A compact (that won't close)
1 fresh handkerchief
2/3 crumpled handkerchiefs
A package of letters
The laundry bill
3 tickets from the cleaner
1 nylon stocking to be repaired
1 address book
1 pack of cigarettes
3 packs of matches
1 leather picture folder
All ration books (including expired ones)
Several cards with addressed of a furrier, a wholesale place for children's coats, a beauty parlor, a graphologist, etc.
2 scraps of paper with telephone numbers and no names
1 hairnet
1 bottle of vitamins
3 samples of slipcovers
1 fountain pen
2 pencils
1 parcel of V-mail letters covering
several months held by a rubber band.

1998
The typical handbag ofa typical woman in 1998 contained:
Banking Card
Beeper
Breath Mints
Cell Phone
Change Purse
Checkbook
Crumpled Tissues
Electronic Organizer
Hand Cream
Hair Brush
Keys
Lip Balm
Makeup case filled to capacity
Pens
Wallet filled with cash and credit cards

One bag is not enough
Our contents spill over into our tote bags, where you will find:
Agenda
Packed Lunch
Paperback Book/Magazine
Newspaper
Shoes to change at work
Umbrella
NFAA accessoryweb.com
Copyright 1998 All rights reserved

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