Today we have one of those artifacts that seem totally odd until you know what they are – and then you see them everywhere. (Well, in my experience, anyway.) This is a coin purse in the style known as a miser’s bag or miser’s purse. Made of crocheted silk, in shades of green, orange, cream, and rose (now faded to rusty brown), and decorated with cut steel beading, fringe, and tassel, it measures 16 inches long.
Coins or other small necessities could be tucked into each end of the purse through the slit in the middle section; then one of the metal rings is moved toward that end to secure your goods. (This video explains it better.) Like the proverbial needle-pointed slippers, they were popular handmade* gifts, especially from women to their fathers, husbands, or sweethearts. An eagle-eyed viewer can spot them in Victorian paintings, prints, lady’s magazines, and the like; for example, a miser’s bag is the focus of this circa 1857 print by James Collinson. Some sources note that they could be carried draped over your belt, though others think they were likely just carried around in the hand. The name “miser’s bag” refers, essentially, to the fact that you couldn’t carry much money (and it was a little tricky to get the money out again).
The purse was donated to MCHS by Alice Diamond French, a local descendant of William Craig Diamond (1828-1873) who settled in Gaithersburg in the 1850s. Family stories said that it originally belonged to her great great grandfather John Diamond (1781-1842) of Philadelphia; it was handed down through the generations and given to Alice in 1926, when she was 16. It was evidently worn enough, through use or age, to require “repair,” and perhaps was used by more than one Diamond gentleman throughout the 19th century. The family story does not, alas, indicate why this particular piece was saved so carefully. Alice’s grandfather, John Bernard Diamond, Sr., was a founder of the First National Bank of Gaithersburg, and served as its President from 1900 until 1926; I can’t help but see a potential sentimental connection between the banker and his family-heirloom coin purse, but who knows?
Miser’s bags were owned by both men and women, with the longer bags – of which our 16″ example is one – being appropriate for manly use. So that part of the story is all right. This style is often associated with the Victorian era – mid-late 19th century, somewhat after John Diamond’s 1842 death – so at first I was inclined to move its ownership down a generation or two, but a perusal of various museum collections has shown me several not-dissimilar examples dated “early 19th century,” so I will hedge my bets and allow the story to stand, barring further investigation.
And there is investigation to be done! Thanks in part to the recent work of Laura Camerlengo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, miser’s purses are not only numerous (they were very trendy for a while, resulting in lots of extant examples) but also well documented. There’s a current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (scroll down to “From Money to Marriage”); an e-book, summarized (for free) here; and the video, linked earlier, that shows how the purses worked. If you want to see more examples (of course you do! They’re colorful, sparkly, weird little purses!) there are plenty to be seen in the online collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Fine Art, the Victoria & Albert (as “stocking purses”), and the Cooper-Hewitt. You’re welcome!
*For example, a pattern for a “knitted purse” can be found in Treasures in Needlework, 1870, by Mrs. Warren and Mrs. Pullan – not available digitally, but the 1970s reprint is fairly easy to find, if you want to indulge in some 19th century handwork and make your own miser’s bag.