SPECIAL POST: 1940s Wood Purses
For this post, we pieced together information from old advertisements and articles clipped via a subscription to Newspapers.com. We located several descendants of purse manufacturers from this era; however, they declined to be interviewed. All photos in this post are of bags and ephemera from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum unless otherwise noted.
|Dar-Lin wood bag with original paperwork and accessories|
There are different types of wood handbags that were made in the 1940s. One example is colorful wood-bead bags imported to the US from Czechoslovakia in the 1930s-1940s. There were also Wood-Flex bags, made of wood tiles in a style similar to Plasticflex handbags. Another is home-crafted purses made from readily available wood boxes decorated with fabrics and trim, a necessity for some women because of wartime shortages after the US entered WWII in 1941 and/or the implementation of a 20% luxury tax on store-bought handbags in 1944. This post focuses on those manufactured primarily in St. Petersburg, Florida. Most were made in a handle-free clutch style using slats constructed from different types of wood. They were lined, usually with a rough linen-like fabric, although we've seen some either unlined or lined with other types of material.
The usual marketing term for purses in that era—as well as the years following—was "handbags," but these wood clutches were generally advertised as "purses." We weren't able to discern the reason. Note: On this site we alternate the use of "bags," "handbags" and "purses."
It is possible that these wooden handbags were initially made in the late 1930s to showcase the techniques of the craftsperson (the first possibly being Earl Gresh) who was already making other items out of wood, with the purses eventually becoming a trend due to wartime shortages of materials such as leather and silk. It helped that they were heavily and enthusiastically marketed to the general consumer and to Florida visitors who purchased them as souvenirs.
|Wood bag with knit fabric inlay|
Wood purse makers often included the option to customize these bags with wooden initials. Some were made with decorations such as animals (like the donkey bag in our collection), and others featured inlaid and painted military insignia. There were several military installations in Florida during WWII, with some military personnel sending these bags to their sweethearts back home. The bags with animals and insignia are much harder to find today. This likely means that fewer of them were made.
There were a number of companies that made wood purses in the 1940s, and include Earl Gresh, Lee Hayman, Beauty Craft, Sexton (Sexton’s Woodcraft by Jay-Gee), Jaeger (formerly Sexton’s), Dar-Lin and Mastercraft. Not all of these purses were marked with a maker name, and some companies also made matching wood accessories such as compacts and cigarette cases. Best known were Gresh and Hayman, who, along with other makers, appeared to enjoy a rivalry and even ran advertisements that featured subtle digs as to who was first in the business or who had the best prices.
|Earl Gresh bag with original brochure and packaging|
Gresh (1896-1977) was a famous, well-liked citizen of St. Petersburg. In addition to being a renowned wood craftsperson, Gresh had careers as an orchestra leader, radio host (Earl Gresh’s Wood Parade, Tuesday evenings at 7:15), pro fisherman and boat racer. He was proprietor of the “Wood Parade,” a building that housed a museum and gift shop, featuring his wood purses, fishing lures, scrapbooks, tackle boxes and more. One of his handbags is at the Smithsonian Institution, and his ads often touted him as being “featured on Dave Elman’s Hobby Lobby,” a popular radio show of the day. His sixteen intricate marquetry panels depicting the life of Christ were a centerpiece of the museum, and are now located at Memorial Park Mausoleum in St. Petersburg. The Wood Parade was built in 1940 and closed in 1959, eventually becoming a series of restaurants, the last of which closed April 2020. Notes: 1. The model in the Earl Gresh brochure is Gerry Meyer, whose daughter contacted us several years ago and identified her. If you have any original photos or other brochures with Ms. Meyer modeling Earl Gresh bags and are willing to part with them, please email email@example.com. 2. Special thanks to Deborah S. at the Smithsonian, who found the original accession information (screenshots pictured below) on the first Earl Gresh purse, donated to the Smithsonian in 1941.
|Wood purse with Navy insignia|
Lee Hayman (1940 census says he was born in 1906; date of death possibly 1958--no obituary found) was another major player in the wood purse industry. We couldn’t find any contemporary articles about him, but the vintage ads, articles and advertorials say he was in the wood novelty business starting in 1917 (would make him 11 if the census is correct), was a hunter and fisherman, and that there was a fire and subsequent rebuild and expansion of his shop in 1945.
|Intricate wood purse, which came to The Vintage Purse Museum with palm-tree themed accessories|
It’s difficult to figure out who was behind the other companies, but it seems as if they were riding on the success of Gresh and Hayman, who were big personalities rather than just business names. Was Sexton, also known as "Sexton by Jay-Gee", which became Jaeger, actually always run by someone named Jaeger, who may have been the same "Jay-Gee"? Was Dar-Lin another line of Sexton's? Could be, since their ads occasionally ran together. And why did Robert Lewis of the enormous Treasure-Land and Wonder-Land gift store and art gallery--an iconic building in St. Petersburg--get in on the smack talk (see ad below)? We may never know, but if you have information, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can update this post.
If the advertisements are any indication, these wood purses peaked in popularity approximately 1943 and ran their course by about 1949. The quality and durability remains evident to this day, as examples of these bags are still available, some barely worn and some well-loved, but all with historical value that makes them an outstanding collectible.
Earl GreshWed, Dec 6, 1939 – 11 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
|Model: Gerry Meyer, whose daughter contacted us several years ago|
|Gresh purse with initials|
Mon, May 12, 1958 – 21 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Thu, Dec 9, 1976 – 46 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
|Smithsonian accession document|
|Smithsonian accession document|
|Popular Science magazine, March 1939|
Lee HaymanWed, Mar 11, 1942 – 7 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Sun, May 16, 1943 – 26 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Sun, May 16, 1943 – 26 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Sun, Aug 22, 1943 – 24 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Sun, Apr 2, 1944 – 8 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Sun, Feb 18, 1945 – 17 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Sun, Mar 11, 1945 – 30 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Beauty CraftSun, Jun 6, 1943 – 16 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Sun, Jun 6, 1943 – 16 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Fri, Jul 23, 1943 – 7 · Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) · Newspapers.com Sun, Aug 1, 1943 – 19 · The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama) · Newspapers.com
Sexton and Dar-Lin
Thu, Dec 19, 1946 – 5 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Mon, Oct 10, 1949 – 9 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Fri, Feb 25, 1949 – 3 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Wed, Oct 29, 1947 – 12 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Misc. Wed, Aug 28, 1946 – 5 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Jaeger - Formerly Sexton's
Thu, Nov 21, 1946 – 8 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com Wed, Dec 5, 1951 – 16 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Anonymous wood purse business for sale, 1946.Mon, Jul 29, 1946 – 13 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Very early mention of Olivia de Havilland and her wooden wardrobe, 1939.
Sat, Feb 4, 1939 – 10 · Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Fri, Jan 21, 1938 – 5 · Nashville Banner (Nashville, Tennessee) · Newspapers.com