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Bag Lady

In addition to providing a safe and accessible home for my belongings, my bag told the world who I was.

Okay, I admit it. I’m a bag lady. No, I’m not a homeless woman roaming the city with all of my worldly possessions packed into an assortment of plastic bags. I’m fortunate to have a home big enough to accommodate all of my belongings, and I don’t live in a city; I never have. But, bags? Oh yes, bags! I am a bag lady.

According to a recent survey, the average woman in the United States owns between five and twenty-one handbags. Five and twenty-one? That’s a huge range. The so-called “average” woman who owns five bags might have a large one to hold essentials like her wallet, credit cards, keys, make-up, comb, and cell phone, as well as nice-to-have items like mints, Tylenol, Band-Aids, a memo pad, camera, scissors, and a bottle of water. Of course, there is some debate about which things are essential and which are just nice-to-have. While many women consider sunglasses a necessity, I don’t leave home without a book. The average woman at the low end of the handbag-owning spectrum might also have an evening bag, a woven or straw summer bag, and two neutrally colored medium-sized bags. These women are not bag ladies.

My own handbag collection runs closer to the upper limits of “average.” In fact, were it not for my daughter who periodically shops my closet, I might (okay, would) find myself in the “above average” category. Even as a child, I loved bags. Rummaging through my mother’s oversized “pocketbook,” as she called it, was always an adventure. From cherry lollipops and spearmint gum to silvery tubes of lipstick and powder-filled compacts, my mother’s bag was a little girl’s playground that smelled of the flowery cologne regularly delivered by the Avon lady. I stuffed my own small plastic purse with Pez dispensers, chains made of gum wrappers, and prizes salvaged from the depths of Cracker Jack boxes.

As I grew older, my fascination with handbags moved from their contents to the actual bags themselves. My mother gifted me with my first “real” bag, a top-handled white leather satchel, for my ninth birthday. Very stylish. Very grown-up. And, as I discovered from an unfortunate encounter with a ballpoint pen, very hard to keep clean. My attempts at covering the stray blue marks with white shoe polish turned my previously smooth leather bag into a chalky mess. But I did learn an important handbag lesson – while most ladies of the time followed the custom of no white bags before Memorial Day or after Labor Day – for me, it would be no white bags. Ever.

I entered the fifth grade with a straw bag sent from an aunt in Florida. But as the days grew shorter and the temperature plummeted, that bag got stashed at the bottom of my closet. My mother replaced it with a Naugahyde-looking saddlebag that smelled like the recliner in our den. As the years went by, my taste ran to fringed suede or denim shoulder bags decorated with embroidered butterflies or sewn-on peace signs. During my college years, I carried an army green knapsack that worked equally well with a hooded snorkel coat or a summery gauze peasant shirt. In addition to providing a safe and accessible home for my belongings, my bag told the world who I was.

When I left the educational cocoon and entered the world of work, the idea of “who I was” became a lot more complicated. And that is when I truly became a bag lady. Whether it’s a long-strapped, sensibly dark bag hanging from my shoulder or a pale straw impossible-to-clean, too-small-to-hold-a-book clutch, a bag expresses my mood of the moment. I wear a hands-free, cross-body bag for trips into the city to visit my handbag-loving daughter, and I carry a lightweight tote to the library. From the sunscreen-splotched canvas of last summer’s beach bag to the metallic gleam of a small evening purse, bags are fun, beautiful, and practical. Any handbag, even a simple black one (especially if it’s adorned with bright silver or gold-tone hardware), adds instant pizzazz to my everyday uniform of jeans and whatever shirt I happen to pull out of the closet. And unlike my jeans after a few too many scoops of Rocky Road ice cream, my handbags always close easily with a satisfying zip, click, or snap.

So yes, old ones, new ones, big ones, small ones, hard ones, and soft ones (and whether you call them handbags, purses, or pocketbooks), like any true bag lady – I love them all!


  1. Your essay made me smile, as I can so relate. Now, do you want to talk about how many pairs of flip flops?

  2. Me too! I collect bags, especially ones I get for free if I buy a certain number of make-up products. I always think I’m getting a deal because they toss in the tote. I seem to forget I’ve spent a couple hundred for a black plastic bag with the logo Lancome somewhere discretely attached to it.

  3. Francine~~Your essay was so much fun to read. I had all those types of bags when I was growing up. Being a teacher, all I have is bags. I’m in a category of my own, however. I must have at least 30 different types of bags. I love ’em!

  4. Oh yes, I’ve always admired your bags! Lately I’ve discovered the Salvation Army Store and hope someone else is enjoying my collection!

  5. Yes, Erika, those makeup bags! That’s a topic for a whole other essay, right? And Suzanne, I think you might be a “bag lady” too, LOL!

    Thanks everyone for your comments! Nice to know I’m not alone!

  6. Hi Francine… it’s Kim ( not Ray). Loved reading what you wrote. Fun read and very much able to relate to.

  7. Francine, I loved your essay! I certainly can relate to your love of bags. My first white bag suffered a similar fate. Shamefully, I admit, as it relates to handbags, I am above average!

  8. What a great essay! Everyone can relate ! It really makes me think back thru the years to all the types of bags I have carried and the reason for choosing them! Of course , I chuckle now at all the things that I put into my bag as items I need to make it thru the day!

  9. OMG — love your piece! I, too, am a “bag lady” and after reading your thoroughly entertaining description of we bag lady types, I no longer feel embarrassment when opening my closet door and seeing shelves full of bags!

    My journey in becoming a full-fledged bag lady has evolved from the “pocketbook” bag arena to tote bags of all sizes, shapes and colors (most barely used, just admired when I dare to look in my closet). That is, the closet in my office since these are what I consider my work bags which I think is my feeble excuse to own so many bags. And to think, prior to reading your piece, I thought I might need to find myself a BLA support group (Bag Ladies Anonymous) to counter this addiction of mine!

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