Collecting Vintage Silver Purses
Theo Foster Rhode Island PurseHand Chased Purse c.1914English Hallmarked PurseRussian Art Nouveau Purse

I've always loved silver. The clean gleam attracts me, and the myriad forms pretty much all appeal to me. I wear plenty of it every day. Naturally, when I go antiquing, my eye is caught by the shine of silver lurking in the showcases. However; my husband and I primarily collect glass, so I've tried to restrain my urge to own the sparkly silver things I run across. Unfortunately for my bank balance, the appeal of silver smalls is just too great for my puny amount of willpower where antiques are concerned.

Little silver dance purses from the Victorian, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco eras are especially appealing to me. They can be gently used sometimes, and if that isn't of immense appeal to a collector, I don't know what is. As much as you can love a glass vase, you can't take it out for the evening to show off to your friends (at least, I wouldn't!) And while sipping a drink, you can pull an Art Deco silver vanity case out of the soft kid lining of the mesh purse you've just acquired to check your lipstick.
Some of the tiniest purses are almost miracles of space engineering- how on earth can a small, slim case about the size of a skinny compact hold three compartments, a silver mechanical pencil, a celluloid notepad, and a mirror? And the ones with springloaded coin holders are so intriguing. A relic from a time when carrying coins actually could buy you something. Suspended from a little finger chain, they look so elegant.

The terms for the purses are myriad. Dance purses, necessaires, minaudieres, vanity cases, compacts, coin purses, carryalls, card cases, and more. Many, many different manufacturers made such novelties. Makers are of some importance, but often the design and condition are more important to collectors.

Some, of course, being more desirable, especially Unger Bros. and Tiffany & Co. Unger Bros made very baroque, deeply embossed designs with motifs like cavorting putti, nude maidens, and very rich looking backgrounds. Tiffany's designs tended to be more sleek and restrained, classy and with understated elegance.

Gorham also produced incredibly rich and fabulous silver smalls, as well as purses and purse frames, though probably they are more well known as a flatware and serving piece maker. Kerr produced lovely items in the Victorian highly ornamented style, often you'll find figural or floral lady's belt buckles by Kerr, with their hatchet shaped mark.  If you're lucky you'll run across a dance purse by Kerr- their embossed designs are quite well done and very Nouveau.

Daniel Low was a store that commissioned some very nice Art Nouveau designed purses, judging from pictures from their catalogues. Presumably their wares were not always marked with the company name, or they were marked by Daniel Low as well as by Gorham, for example. Incidentally, this same company sold sterling overlaid Steuben perfumes, as evidenced by their catalogue from 1910.

Whiting & Davis did some excellent sterling silver mesh purses, sometimes with the desirable cathedral top (shaped like an inverted V). They made the finest mesh, which they termed 'baby fine', with miniscule machine-made links. The Whiting & Davis sterling purses are quite collectable, as well as their Deco enameled 'flapper' style purses.

Also the hallmarked English silver is quite desirable; the hallmarks on English sterling can tell you when and where an item was made. (You will never find an English hallmark in conjunction with the 925 mark; if you do, it's a sure sign of a repro!) In America, the Stamp Act of 1906 standardized the requirements of sterling silver to 925 parts silver, and required all items to be marked as such. Before that there were plenty of unmarked smalls.

It's difficult to say whether a piece is more or less desirable with initials engraved. Sometimes you're lucky enough to run across your own initials on a piece, but not very often. The fonts used were so highly stylized that sometimes they're just illegible, and could really be anything. But the beauty of the engraving is sometimes just exciting in and of itself, and adds interest to a piece. It's true that an antique wouldn't have your initials on it anyway; it would have grandma's. However, if a purse is engraved, say, 'Flora', across the top, it will always belong to Flora. Though plenty of pieces have blank initial plates.

While repros abound in the silver smalls category, especially matchsafes, I've never seen a silver purse reproduced, except for the purse shaped pendants that are obviously new. Some of the best reference books I've found are Handbags, 3rd Edition, Revised and Updated by Roseann Ettlinger, the beginning of the book by the same author, Compacts and Smoking Accessories 2nd Edition, and Silver Novelties in the Gilded Age by Deborah Crosby.

Of course, there are so many other areas of collecting sterling silver smalls, besides the purses that catch my eye. From matchsafes ('Vestas') to lorngettes (hand-held spectacles), there were so many quasi-functional and highly decorative silver items created in the Victorian era, there is something for everyone.


Shop for Sterling Silver and 16,500 other antiques on our website: