Picture it… A purse to inspire a thousand stories about Sicily in 1922 and life lessons as only Sophia could tell them! Believe it or not, Estelle Getty purchased what would become her character’s signature accessory at a thrift shop. She went on to carry the purse in almost every episode of the show, and it’s basically taken on a life of its own as an icon of the series.
The Los Angeles Times noted in Getty’s obituary in 2008:
It was her idea that Sophia would always carry a purse because, she said, older women are forced to shed so many possessions in their later years that everything they own ends up in their purses.
“Nobody puts down their life very easily,” she explained in a 1992 interview with Newsday.
From Sicily to Shady Pines, Estelle’s choice to have Sophia carry a wicker purse in this style was spot on. Sophia also recounts her journey to America from Sicily in many episodes of the show, sometimes revealing secrets from her past along the way. It is also well known that Estelle suffered pretty severe stage fright, so having a prop like a purse to hold on to may also have helped her to feel more steady in certain scenes. Oftentimes known as handbags, the history of the development of the purse is also a “powerful symbol of growing female independence” throughout history, which is a pretty great metaphor for Sophia, if you ask me.
Wicker purses trace their origins to the creel, a type of basket used for collecting shrimp, fish, and other crustaceans. These baskets vary in shape and size but generally have rounded sides with a flat bottom and a lid with a buckle, snap, or other closure along with a long strap for wearing crossbody style. Traditional creels also feature a small rectangular opening in the lid so the wearer can easily and quickly put their catch inside the basket. For this reason, and because of the additional similarity to the picnic basket, styles like Sophia’s purse are also sometimes called basket purses.
Some wicker and straw purses mimic the shape of a creel directly but most, including Sophia’s, offer a stylized take. Styles that are meant to be used as handbags, again like Sophia’s, usually feature a short handle rather than a strap. Straw purses also became popular in the 1950’s as a casual option to accompany cotton “going out dresses“. Movie stars like Sophia Loren also helped popularize a colorful Italian aesthetic in films such as It Started in Naples. So even though Estelle Getty purchased Sophia’s infamous handbag at a thrift store she almost couldn’t have picked a more perfect item representing her character’s coastal Italian heritage if she’d tried!
Like Sophia herself, her purse is actually quite unique among examples of wicker and straw purses from the time period and even today. By searching etsy and the Internet you’ll find many examples with decorations such as pom poms or straw flowers. Buckles are also a frequent accent and, yes, beads; however, there are often fewer items resembling Sophia’s purse with its distinctive beaded handle and rows down the front. Interestingly, I did find the purse below on etsy, and the seller noted that it has an “Ohrbach’s Imported British Crown Colony of Hong Kong” label inside.
As it turns out, Ohrbach’s was a department store that had its flagship location in Union Square in New York City. The chain also had locations in California, where Estelle likely purchased the purse, in Los Angeles and Glendale. There is no evidence that the purse Estelle found in the thrift shop came from Ohrbach’s, but it certainly seems a strong possibility given its similarity to the purse above. I love the thought that Sophia could’ve purchased it on a shopping trip into Manhattan from Brooklyn, too! Here’s a vintage advertisement for Ohrbach’s that mentions–you guessed it!–purses.
Collectors Weekly also has an excellent article that discusses the origin and history of the straw purse. The introductory sentence seems particularly reminiscent of Sophia and of Estelle’s thoughts from the beginning of this post:
In the early 1950s, the casual handbag emerged, as women demanded purses that were both fashionable and capable of holding all their cosmetics and accessories.
So, which is it, you might be asking yourself: wicker or straw? Both terms tend to be somewhat interchangeable. Although wicker is a type of straw, for me, it is also a very specific style of woven material. Straw purses tend to be much more flexible or have wider, flat woven strips whereas wicker is more tightly woven of thin, round, reeds in sturdier, inflexible shapes more like baskets. The furniture in the Girls’ living room is also often described as wicker when really it’s bamboo. But when I think of wicker, I think of only one style, and it’s this:
My grandmother had some similar wicker rocking chairs in her house in a room that my family lovingly refers to as “the rose room” because it was covered in a rose printed wallpaper. Another style of wicker chair that was popular in the 1960’s and 70’s was the peacock chair. It’s made quite the comeback in modern decor as well. Blanche keeps one in her garage, and we see Sophia sitting in it in the “End of the Curse” episode.
These chairs were often made from rattan, which is also sometimes used interchangeably with wicker, although rattan is actually a specific type of tree palm material. Confused, yet? Check out Sophia’s purse next to a straw one below for an idea of how they differ. Both wicker and straw purses and handbags remain perennially popular as a summer trend.
As for the fate of the purse we all know and love, it was sold by Bonham’s at auction in 2009 along with several other items from Estelle Getty’s estate, including her Emmy award and a pair of eyeglasses, similar to the ones above, that she wore on the show. Unfortunately, this came to pass because her sons couldn’t agree on how to divide up those assets according to her will. The identity of the purchaser has never been revealed (auction houses aren’t required to do so), but I certainly hope it’s a diehard fan of the show who treats them with the respect they deserve! It’s really sad that more respect isn’t being given to television and Hollywood memorabilia these days and stars like Debbie Reynolds and Liza Minnelli have to auction them rather than a museum stepping up to purchase the collections. Of course, the funding at cultural institutions isn’t always robust enough for such acquisitions, but it would be wonderful if it was. I know Debbie Reynolds always dreamed of opening a museum with her collection before she finally sold it.
Sophia’s purse is so emblematic of the series as a whole that the 25th anniversary DVD set of The Golden Girls was even released in 2010 as a box set in a case resembling it. Performances like Golden Girls Live try their best to replicate Sophia’s purse, and there are some pretty great DIY tutorials out there. Of course countless similar styles can be found on etsy, Ebay, or at your own local thrift and charity shops if you’re lucky!
Handbags: The Making of a Museum, by Judith Clark
Handbags: The Power of the Purse, by Anna Johnson
The Straw Bag: An Obsessive, Comprehensive Guide (Wall Street Journal)
Fashion Is Still Betting Big On Basket Bags (Refinery29)
The History of the Handbag (Women’s Museum of California)