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Handbag Graphic One
by Mary Elizabeth Williams

I'd never encountered anything like it. There, amidst a tableful of junk at a Canal Street flea market, was an exotic creature: not quite a pocketbook but more than a lunch pail—a chunky container with the pearly marbleized surface of a 1950's tabletop. It was my first plastic purse—a scratched-up, caked-with-grime bargain at only three dollars. When my preppy friend Sarah declared it hideous, my affection for it was cemented. I took it home with me, lovingly rubbed it with Fantastik until it glowed, and cleared a place of honor for it on my shelf. This was no mere repository of subway tokens and ticket stubs. This was the tchotchke of my dreams. Eleven years later, it still is.

The plastic handbag has existed in various hard-edged incarnations since the invention of that versatile and highly flammable material, but the purses didn't really take off until the postwar baby boom years brought a space-age infatuation with all things sleek and modern to everyday life. The plastic purse's malleable personality lent itself to a seemingly endless variety of possibilities—fantastic shapes, clever etchings, rich colors. Who wanted alligator pocketbooks any more? Hell, gators have been with us since the dawn of humanity. This was something far more contemporary.

Handbag Graphic Two

Even now, the plastic purse stands unique in the history of feminine accoutrements. Not always as practical as a big old knapsack, to be sure, but functional, and with a decidedly artistic element—a little slice of Bauhaus via Patricia of Miami. It's an everyday item, something as humdrum as a toothbrush, yet it can hold its own on the mantel next to the Steuben glass. Try doing that with your canvas tote bag.

The problem with putting the purse on the mantle, however, is that it quickly became apparent that it needed company. After my initial flea market victory, I promptly graduated to harder stuff. It wasn't long before I found myself unconsciously searching everywhere for companions for my lonely carryall.

Handbag Graphic Three

Slowly they trickled in. The obsession began to intrude upon my social life. I was out with some friends heading to brunch when we breezed past two magnificent specimens on a blanket by Astor Place. I picked through my eggs distractedly, threw down a few bills, then ran all the way back to that promising blanket. By that time the pair hadbeen split up, and the stunning rhinestone-studded black beauty was forever beyond my grasp. This is what is known in fishing circles as The One That Got Away. But there are worse things that can happen to a handbag hunter.


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