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Cool Things - Carry Nation's Purse

Carry Nation's purse

Personal items can humanize famous people in ways words cannot, and when words and objects come together they make for a powerful story. This very ordinary purse belonged to temperance advocate Carry Nation.

Caricatured for over a century, Carry Nation is a symbol of obsessive overreaction to the consumption of alcohol. The real woman, however, was a much more complex individual known for acts of charity and a quick sense of humor.

 Nation carried this typical, turn-of-the-20th-century purse at many public appearances and was photographed with it on several occasions (one such image is pictured at left). Made of sturdy dark brown leather, the bag has seen heavy use and the strap has worn in two at the shoulder.

In her autobiography, The Life of Carry A. Nation, the author mentions a "leather case" that is almost certainly the same bag. The following passage from the book refers to a steamboat trip on the Fall River between Boston and New York in the summer of 1903. Mobbed by people, Nation provoked the wrath of the boat's captain by protesting a group of men smoking and blocking the door to the ladies' lounge. The captain responded by threatening to lock the crusader in her stateroom. She describes what happened next:

Carry Nation with this purse over her shoulder

"When I had finished my lunch, and had put on a clean tie and fixed my hair, I took from my valise a lot of little hatchets and put them in a little leather case I carry by a strap over my shoulder. Thus equipped I entered the ladies cabin, where there were perhaps fifty people sitting. When I went in, they began to look at one another, some smiled; I knew they had heard of the captain's trying to prevent my coming out.
Taking my seat on a sofa in the middle of the room, I was listening to the lovely string band when some one came up and began to talk to me. After a while I was quite surrounded and the cabin soon became crowded. Some one asked to see a little hatchet, so I opened my satchel to show them. One of the officers . . . came up saying: 'Madam, you are not allowed to sell these here.' I replied: 'You sell wine, beer, whiskey, tobacco, cigarettes and anything that will drug these people. Now these are my own little souvenirs, and they will advertise my cause, help me, and be a little keep sake from the hand that raised the hatchet, so I claim the right to sell them, where you have no right to sell bad things.' He went up to see the captain, who said: 'I am too busy to fool with that woman.'. . . .
We had a nice time. I repeated poetry on the evils of drink and smoking. All were happy, and at ten o-clock, I bade good-night to many friends who regarded me not as the wild vicious woman, but as one who meant well."

Nation's heirs donated a number of items to the Kansas Historical Society in 1999. This donation included temperance campaign materials as well as clothing, sewing supplies, and even dentures and hairpieces.  These personal objects--including Nation's favorite purse--are in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Cool Things - Carry Nation's Purse

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2001

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.