64.30.01 miser bag.JPG

Time Period : Victorian Era, Nineteenth Century

Category: Accessories,Purses

Accession Number: 196464.30.01

Donor:The Perrin Family


This miser bag is brown with silver beading. It is made from the yarn construction, netting. Each side is very different from the other. One end is bigger with two light brown stripes with beading and a floral shaped layer. The other side is about half the size, and it has tassels. There is a single slit in the middle of the bag and two metal rings that keep it closed.


Miser bags are hour glass shaped with two ends that function to hold coins. They can range from four to thirty-six inches long, but the average was about eight to ten inches long.[1] As the nineteenth century progressed, the size of the miser bags increased. Often miser bags have a slit in the middle where it gets narrower that is about two inches long. The slit is secured with two rings that slide over the slit to keep it closed. If there is not a single slit in the middle, then there are two slits, one on each side that are then covered by the rings to close the opening. The rings were made from metal, wood, and later in the nineteenth century celluloid, which was the first form of plastic.[2] The yarn was made from silk. The miser bags were constructed using single element constructions such as netting, knitting, or crocheting, which was good for this type of purse since a single element construction could crush and move without breaking, making it easier to insert and remove coins. People would try to make miser bags out of other materials, such as canvass and leather, but they were not as functional since they lacked the ability to stretch in order to insert and retrieve the coins. Wool and velvet worked, but it was ideal for miser bags to be sewn by hand since the more effort used in making the bag, the more meaningful the bag was when gifted. Godey's Lady's Book magazine was a popular source to find information on what types of miser bags were in style and how to make them. Miser bags are often decorated with beading. After the 1850s steel was an accessible material, so beads were often made out of steel. Before this, beads were made from glass, other metals, or marcasite which is a crystalized iron. [3]

In order to distinguish which coins are in which sides, the sides of the miser bag were usually different. During this time period, there were both silver and gold coins, so for example one side would be rounded and the other side would be squared. It was also possible for both ends to be rounded, in this case there is most likely a different way of telling the sides of the bag apart. Some other ways of differentiating the sides would be by having a tassel on one end and not the other, or fringe on one side and not the other. They could have gold and silver beads to show which coin was in which side of the bag, or have two different color ends such as green and red or blue and brown, which were popular color combinations back then. If the miser bag was one color, it was likely that the color reflected a trend for that time period. At one point, green was very common for miser purses, especially for men's purses, although there was not much distinction between mens' and womens' miser bags. Halfway through the nineteenth century, chemist William Henry Perkin developed an easy way to make dye, and with this he made the color mauvine. Mauvine is a pinky-purple color. At this point in time that became a very popular color for miser bags, along with fuchsia and magenta. These remained the most popular colors from the late 1850s to 1860s. [4]

The common name for the type of purse pictured above, is a miser purse. A miser is someone who is adamant about saving money, so he or she lives in a frugal manner. Other names for the miser bag, include long purses, gentlemens' purses, ring purses, and finger purses. Interestingly, the type of purse pictured above was not called a "miser bag" until the beginning of the twentieth century. During the nineteenth century, they were just called bags. Today, we use the most recent term for them since that is what they are referred to in museums.

There are ways to differentiate when the miser bag dates to based on its decoration. In the eighteenth century, they were decorated with different color threading or pictures sewn on. In the nineteenth century, beading was added to them. Eighteenth century miser bags also had one bead so that coins had to be pushed to only one side. In the nineteenth century, both sides started to be used and the bags got shorter. These miser purses were fashionable and said to be the characteristic bag of the Victorian Era. It is said that the design of a miser bag originated from the idea of carrying coins in stockings. [5]

There was meaning and tradition behind the construction and gifting of these miser bags. They were often made to match a woman's dress or bonnet. Miser bags were commonly decorated with geometric designs such as circles and zigzags, abstract designs such as paisley, floral designs, animal and insect designs such as butterflies and horses, or they could be inscribed with names or initials. Miser bags were perfect for all sorts of gifting, and personalizing with a special motif made the bag even more special. Weddings were popular occasions to gift miser bags, and they would often have money in them as well. Other opportune occasions were birthdays, Christmas, and as charity gifts that were filled with money. The etiquette of this time was not to give expensive gifts, and instead the value of the gift was based off of how much effort was put into making the gift. The time spent on construction was time given up to make something for someone else, so that was meaningful. It was thought that an expensive gift made it seem like the receiver would be indebted to the giver.

Men would carry their miser bags in jacket pockets since it was impolite to reach into pant pockets and waistcoat pockets were too small to fit a miser purse in. Also, miser bags are not seen in any menswear fashion plates, so this leads us to think that they were carried in an unseen spot. However, women's fashion plates sometimes showed miser purses in day-wear outfits worn over the belt or in the woman's hand. The miser purses were not discussed in the write ups of these fashion plates though, which makes it seem like the miser bags either did not have a fashionable importance, or it was obvious what they were because of how common they were, so they needed no description. Women would carry their miser purses in their pockets too, but outfits only had pockets when it would not ruin the silhouette of the outfit. Interestingly enough, pockets used to be worn separately under a woman's skirt in the eighteenth century before they started to be sewn into the clothing. When women did not have pockets, they could carry the miser bags in reticules, which were bigger bags that had a drawstring closing. [6]

There are lots of examples of miser bags in fictional literature, and oftentimes the miser bags foreshadow marriage. The rings on the miser bag mean wedding rings in the future. There are lots of literary examples that explain the gifting of miser purses. One example is Elsie Dinsmore by Martha Finley. The main character, Elsie makes a miser purse for her friend, Rose, who is moving. Elsie thinks Rose will value something that took time from her life to make instead of something she bought. The first miser purse Elsie makes is stolen by her aunt so she ends up giving Rose a miser purse she had started making for her missing father, which shows that the gender of the bags is interchangeable. It also represented Rose taking the parental role in Elsie's life, along with the importance and cultural tradition that comes with gifting miser purses. Then in Helen and Arthur by Caroline Lee Hentz and The Fortunes of Ben Barclay by Horatio Alger Jr. (1887) when a female character gives a male the gift of a miser purse, they later end up getting married in the stories. Then in Precaution: A Novelby James Fenimore Cooper in 1820, the main character, Emily, is making a miser purse for her father, and her eventual husband watches her and admires her technique. He gets to wondering about her likes and dislikes. Therefore,making a miser bag is seen as being a way to attract men. Miser bags were only made by women because during that time period, a female's role was domestic therefore were educated in how to be a good housewife. Women learned needlework that men did not learn. However, both sexes carried miser bags. By the end of the nineteenth century, miser purses were going out of style. A literary example that shows this is A Summer In Leslie Goldthwaite’s Life by Adeline Dutton Train Whitney, ,where in 1890 a poor woman tries to help the main character, Leslie, and the poor woman is carrying a miser purse. But instead of coins, she has an eyestone in it and since miser purses were out of style, this exemplifies the poor woman’s appearance and weird mannerisms. [7]

The miser bag was completely out of style by the 1920s, and one reason is because of the new use of paper money instead of gold and silver coins. Therefore, billfold wallets became popular and people stopped using miser bags. Another reason miser bags went out of style was because during the beginning of the twentieth century there was a "New Woman" who was more independent. She was getting the right to vote and having professional careers, so women did not need to learn domestic skills like before and stopped spending their time doing needlework and making miser bags. [8]

Additional Images:



Kristina Bergman, TMD 224H

Last updated:


Additional Sources:

"The Miser Bag," Vanessa's Treastures, http://www.movingbitsproductions.com/antiques/miser.html

"What is a Miser's Purse," Yesterday's Threads, http://texastalking.tripod.com/id7.html

"Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion," Volume 8, 2013, http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bewdf/BEWDF-v8/EDch8511.xml

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  1. ^ Buck, Anne. Victorian Costume and Costume Accessories. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961.
  2. ^ Camerlengo, Laura. The Ubiquitous Miser's Purse. New York: Cooper- Hewitt, 2010.
  3. ^ Camerlengo, Laura. The Ubiquitous Miser's Purse.
  4. ^ Camerlengo, Laura. The Ubiquitous Miser's Purse.
  5. ^ Camerlengo, Laura. The Ubiquitous Miser's Purse.
  6. ^ Camerlengo, Laura. The Ubiquitous Miser's Purse.
  7. ^ Camerlengo, Laura. The Ubiquitous Miser's Purse.
  8. ^ Camerlengo, Laura. The Ubiquitous Miser's Purse.