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PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History

December 4th, 2023 |

Past Exhibition on display: October 11, 2019 through October 30, 2020

PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History Overview

Spanning the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, ranging in style from folk art, to contemporary designer to embroidered. Wood’s collection, which numbers into the thousands, is broken up into sub collections of 150 to ~ 600 purses grouped by material, aesthetic elements, and use.

Explore a timeline of handbags, representing the trends of each decade, displayed alongside corresponding fashions and paired with life-sized graphics from fashion advertisements that visitors can pose alongside.

Additional displays at the Kemerer Museum will consider themes of design, innovation, materials, the personal stories of previous handbag owners and eccentric designers, and the local artist section will spotlight bags hand decorated by local artists to participate.

The Moravian Museum displays will focus on a selection of neeedlepoint handbags displayed alongside examples of needlepoint from our collection.

PURSEonality Lookbook

From the Personal Collection of Ilene Hochberg Wood

Art of the Bag

The auction is now closed.

Join our virtual auction to bid on uniquely crafted handbags and a special BSWANKY designer handbag prize draw!

Friday, October 30th – Thursday, November 5th

Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites and Ilene Hochberg Wood present a virtual auction of beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handbags crafted by local artists in honor of saying goodbye to the blockbuster exhibit PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History.

The auction features handbags customized by artists, some of whom have work in Ilene Wood’s collection! It will be like taking a part of the exhibition home with you! Enjoy added benefits like access to a live virtual tour with Ilene Wood and prize drawn admission for Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites Historic Holidays: Christmas in the Quarter. We are also please to announce the prize drawing of a designer BSWANKY handbag valued at $2,200.

Purchase prize draw tickets for your chance to win at $50 and register for free to bid on all listed bags. We can’t wait for you to join us for this stylish send-off!

Register for free

  • Register to bid for free
  • Anyone who places a bid will have access to the live, virtual closing tour with Ilene Wood. Learn about what is up next for PURSEonality!
  • Tickets to enter the Prize Draw for designer, BSWANKY bag are $50 each.

BSWANKY Designer Handbag Prize Drawing

The drawing is now closed.

Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites would like to thank BSWANKY for generously donating one of their beautiful handbags to be a part of our prize drawing. BSWANKY, founded by Gretchen Bauer, crafts handbags in the U.S.A out of their own Sarasota, Florida-based atelier. BSWANKY was born on the principle of uplifting women in the U.S. garment industry, and are committed to not only their employees, but designing the perfect bag for their clients as well.

Inspired by the elegant vintage glamour of cosmopolitan life in cities like Paris, Barcelona, and Milan, this bag brings the party back from the past. Made of fabulous rare screen-printed hide and finished with gator-embossed leather trim and our iconic nickel hardware, only 1 of these one of a kind hand bags can be made! This charismatic and chic handbag has timeless appeal, but won’t be around for long!

  • Can be worn as a shoulder bag or a backpack
  • Fits a tablet, continental wallet, 500mL water bottle all at once!
  • Bag measures 12″ w X 10.5″ h X 5″ d, strap measures 28″ l X 1″ w (includes closure)
  • Weight: 2.5 lbs
  • Interior hook closure for added security
  • Front nickel closure opens to expand the bag
  • Two D-ring attachments to wear in backpack form
  • Large interior with one zip closure pocket, one open pocket, pen pocket and interior clip key holder
  • Convenient swivel snap closures hook onto exquisite grommet details
  • Four purse feet to protect base of bag
Ilene Hochberg Wood and Gretchen Bauer, owner of BSWANKY at PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History

PURSEonality is on the move!

PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History travelled to Coral Gables Museum, Coral Gables, FL for display from September 15, 2020 – January 15, 2021!

Over 250 bags were safely packed up for the transfer, pictured to the right. Some photos from the display in Florida are below!

Want to see Ilene Hochberg Wood’s incredible collection where you live or work? Reach out to Lindsey Jancay to find out more! This travelling exhibition can be customized to fit the needs and mission of your museum space.


Bag Lunch Video Series

Enjoy Bag Lunch, a weekday lunchtime look into Ilene Hochberg Wood’s expansive collection with the collector herself! Each episode explores a different selection of bags or particular designer.

Bag Lunch Episode 1
Bag Lunch Episode 2


About Ilene Hochberg Wood

“Women love handbags. They are totems, and objects of desire, that convey who we are and what we hold dear, both literally and figuratively. Look at any woman and the bag she carries, and you learn a lot about her, and the image she wants to convey to the world. Empty the bag out and examine its contents, to learn who she really is inside, and what she finds essential to her everyday existence.

I am interested in fashion, and the artistry and history of purses. I am drawn to bags that convey a story about their past, and the women who originally owned them. I appreciate originality, humor, bold statements, and details that give insight into the women who chose to carry them.

My collection is comprised of many categories. ‘It Bags’, evening bags, needlepoint bags, wooden bags, box bags, tramp art bags, and bags that signify their time and era, from the Victorian period through the jazz age, war years, and the ’50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and today’.”

~Ilene Hochberg Wood



PURSEonality in the News


NYC Pop-Up Event

NYC Pop-Up Event

September 4, 2019

Co-hosted by the Accessories Council, LIM College, and Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites

Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites was honored to partner with the Accessories Council and LIM College to bring a preview of the PURSEonality exhibition to New York City. Over 50 purses from Ilene Hochberg Wood’s collection were displayed for industry professionals, friends and fashion students at this unique pop-up event. Special thanks to Ilene Hochberg Wood for providing a wonderful selection of purses, to Accessories Council and LIM College for hosting, and to Peter Gourniak for documenting the evening. Don’t miss your chance to see over 300 handbags when PURSEonality: A Stylish Handbag History opens at Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites on October 11th.

America on Wheels Pop-Up

“Cars & Purses – a Timeless Pairing”

America on Wheels – An Over-the-Road Transportation Museum

Automotive innovation and fashion design have long drawn influence from each other. This relationship is particularly evident in purse design. Whether it is a carpet bag carefully packed to accompany a traveler on a long coach ride, a delicate bejeweled clutch held by a limousine passenger, or a practical, everyday purse containing a wallet and to-do list slung across the passenger seat of a family car, it is easy to imagine where bags reside within the car interior and our daily transit.

This display included a variety of handbags inspired by the automotive industry. Some examples feature cars as subject matter, while others are “travel bags” design to accommodate the needs of the mobile fashionista. In addition, many bags in this display use materials typically found in cars such as metals, lucite, wood, and vinyl. The designs even mimic shapes found in auto details, such as headlights, tires, tailpipes, and vents.

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