Nothing says summer nostalgia like a Caro-Nan purse

What’s a Caro-Nan purse, you say?  *This* is a Caro-Nan purse:

This is a personalized Caro-Nan. All of the business names and addresses on the buildings are references to the owner’s friends and family.

According to what I can find on the interwebs, Caro-Nan purses were made by Carolyn McDaniel and Nancy Steele in Jackson Mississippi from the late ’50s to the mid ’70s. As their popularity spread, they custom-made them for boutiques around the country, with the names of that town’s stores and landmarks (even though all of the buildings always look like they’re in Amsterdam, architecturally speaking), and for individuals with place names that meant something to them, like the one in the picture above. [Updated to add:  Not all Caro-Nan bags featured buildings. Some had flowers and plants and cute insects. But I like the city scapes the best.] On the top of the cityscape bags, they decoupaged arbitrary “fun” things, as well as names of international tourist destinations — I think they were supposed to signify “woman of the world.” The inside, which I didn’t take a picture of, is lined in country style, cotton, floral print cloth (think Vera Bradley bags). And they glued on a “lucky penny” with the year of the purse’s creation. Here’s the top of this one:

You can’t really make it out, but my penny is from 1969, the year I was born. (And could the things on the top of this bag *be* any more 1969?) That’s part of the reason why I bought this purse at a local antique shop. But there are other reasons, as well. Read on. (Btw, what’s up with the punctuation in “C’est la, vie!”?!)

As the caption tells you, I bought this purse in an antique shop here in Rust Belt. But the 1969 penny and the “Happiness is” cut out aren’t what provokes the nostalgia for me, even though I spent most of my childhood living in a bedroom decorated by my late sister Ms. V., who included two “Happiness is…” bulletin boards featuring big-eyed Keane-like figures in the decor. (*Shudder*)

No, what provokes the nostalgia — and a bit of “plate o’ shrimp” coincidence — is that my mother had one of these purses, too, and just a week before finding this one in Rust Belt, I found her old one in her bedroom closet. I don’t have a picture of it, because it’s waiting for me to come pick it up from my brother’s house next time I’m in town. My mom’s wasn’t personalized. Instead, it was made for one of the shops in the fancy shopping district in Cowtown, and features all the stores there that I remember from my childhood (and most of which are much older than that) but aren’t there any more. Inside the purse were a bunch of old receipts and coupons (7 cents off cat food!) that showed that the last time she used the purse was 1974. (I think her penny was from 1970.) Also in that purse were two stubs from the train ride at the zoo in Cowtown, which I knew were from a visit she and I made there, as we did every year after school let out, just the two of us.

And that’s when the nostalgia hit me. Hard. Woah. It was intensely sensory; I could see us sitting side by side on that train circa 1974, and see what she was wearing — white skirt, wedge sandals, I think, and a green blouse — and how tan her legs were, and I could smell her (well, I could kind of still smell her in that purse!) and see the quality of the light in Cowtown in late May (because that’s when we went to the zoo — before it got too hot). And I could see her holding that purse in her lap. But I couldn’t see her face, perhaps because in that memory, I was looking at what was around me, and Mom was just a grown-up set of images in the periphery of a 5-year-old excited to see lions, and tiger, and bears, oh my! But the rest was *so* vivid.  It also provoked memories of our country club’s pool and that purse sitting next to Mom by her lounge chair. I could almost smell the chlorine and suntan oil (yes, sun *tan* *oil* — not sun*block* lotion). One person’s madeleine cookie is another person’s Caro-Nan purse.

When I found Mom’s purse, I didn’t know it belonged to a two-decade long, nation-wide trend. I thought it was made by some local artist — after all, all the place names were local.  And then I saw the purse above in an antique store here. Weird! I thought. Of course I *had* to buy this Rust Belt counterpart to my mom’s purse. Not only was it from my birth year, but on the back side are the (official) names of places that mean something to me, too — this lady and I have some things in common. But I had to find out how she and Mom had such similar bags. Was it some kind of direct marketing trend, like Tupperware? Or a craft trend like macrame and latch hook rugs? So then I started searching “Caro-Nan” (the signature in the bag) and found other blogs and Etsy shops talking about them. One of the commenters on one of the blogs said Carolyn and Nancy are still around, though not making bags any more.  I wish they’d get someone to make a web site for them to tell their own story — I’d love to hear it!

So, what provokes nostalgic summer or childhood (or childhood summer) memories for you? And do you know anyone with a Caro-Nan purse?

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22 thoughts on “Nothing says summer nostalgia like a Caro-Nan purse

  1. I discovered a trigger last year that really staggered me: fresh off-the-tree apricots. When I was a kid, my family had fruit trees of all kinds. And going out to pick breakfast was a normal thing. Fresh, sun-warmed apricots: instant recollection of hot days spent inside making jams with my mom, an intensely summer memory.

  2. Belle — That’s beautiful! And now I really, really want apricots!

    Update on my Rust Belt Caro-Nan bag…The former owner of this one is still alive. (There’s a lot of info on that bag, including her name.) She’s elderly, so I suspect she might have done some downsizing and/or moving into a senior living situation, which may be how this bag ended up back out in the world. At any rate, I hope she doesn’t miss her once-trendy bag! It’s gone to an appreciative home, anyway.

  3. The purse looks familiar to me. I’m pretty sure neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers had one (though one grandmother had a couple of the Nantucket basket-purses, both scrimshaw-topped and not, which are, I think, a close relative, most likely a predecessor), but other ladies in the wealthy east-coast metropolitan area in which I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s did. In particular, I think my 2nd/3rd grade teacher, a woman who also favored bright Lilly Pulitzer prints and colored leather flats with matching leather flowers on the toes (items which I suspect may have come from the same sorts of boutiques as the purses), may have had one, as may have some of the other teachers and mothers. She and several other teachers from my elementary school moved, as their own children grew a bit older, from teaching to doing various sorts of consulting for independent schools — a much more lucrative proposition, I’m sure, and their own participation in the changes going on at the time.

  4. Never seen or heard of these purses before, but they’re awesome! Thanks for sharing.

    A certain kind of summertime warmth & closeness with those visible waves of heat in the air is a powerful trigger for me — especially the way it’s briefly pleasurable (after exiting an airconditioned space, e.g.) before it gets awful. I associate this with both my parents’ 1978 station wagon (I was born in 1975, and they had that thing so long it became “my” car when I learned to drive) and, later, with midtown Manhattan, specifically crossing the blacktop on 9th Avenue and 50th Street at lunchtime, near my first grown-up job.

    They’re slightly different sense memories, since the one from my childhood involves a very hot, but less humid, confined space — God, sitting on those vinyl seats was impossible without a beach towel! Just thinking about it conjures up the smell of chlorine from the swim club. But both memories are about how unexpectedly enjoyable discomfort can be — how energizing, how alive-feeling. And both are about the sense of freedom and self-determination that comes with existing outside of the normal rhythms of time and weather.

    I also associate oversized tortoiseshell sunglasses, pushed back on the top of the head, with my mother in the 1970s and early 80s. Only recently have I realized that not many women today actually wander around with sunglasses on their heads (as opposed to putting them in a purse or something) when not in use, but it’s my default move and I have a million photos of myself like that (including my current Fb photo, and my faculty profile pic). I think Mom + Jackie O together made this a permanent habit, permanently associated with a kid’s idea of carefree summertime glamour.

  5. Wow, I had a similar experience yesterday when I saw one of these in a yarn shop that also sold vintage purses! But my connection is even stronger as it as my aunt who is the Nan in Caro-Nan! (Steele was her maiden name, BTW) My father’s brother’s wife and she is alive and well and still living in Jackson, MS. I emailed her pictures of the purse I found but have not heard back from her yet. She is in her late 70s I believe.

    But when I saw that purse, BOOM, it just zapped me back to a place in time I had not remembered in a long time. The purse I found was dated 1968. My mother’s own purse was personalized and I remember the penny on top. Back then, things were not mass produced overseas so people kept those purses. As I recall, they started the business but then hired people to help them. Although she is my aunt, I don’t know much more about it all, I hope she answers my email and I can ask her more questions.

    I love that they are all over eBay and Etsy and I wonder where my mother’s is? Knowing my mother, she gave it away long ago and how I would LOVE to find it.

    Thanks for the memory!

  6. Oops, I need to correct my comment above but it’s in moderation. Nancy was NOT my aunt, my aunt’s name was Nancy and she lived in Jackson but I was just told that she was one of the painters, not the originator of the bags! Still, I would love to hear more from her about the company! You don’t need to accept this comment, but maybe delete the last one, sorry about that!

  7. Thanks so much for posting this! I bought a Caro-Nan purse at an estate sale today and was Googling to see what I could find out and BOOM! there your blog is with all the answers to set me free! Mine is a 1970 bag which is the year I was born. I never even looked at the penny until reading this. Funny how they seem to be finding their way into the hands of those that were born the same year as they were! Thanks again for sharing. Oh, I meant to ask. When you say “Cowtown” are you speaking of Ft. Worth?

  8. P.S. Mine appears to be from Fayetteville, AR as it has a “University of Arkansas” building and mentions of Razorbacks and the stadium. Around the top it mentions Rome, France, Europe and says “Thrill of a lifetime”, “beach”, “charming” and “travel is fun”. The lid says “Spoil Yourself”, “New York” and “Antiques” as well as it features a “hand” of cards made up of the Queen, 9 and 5 and has a pretty basket of flowers. Wish I had the history behind mine! It also says “Town and Country Shop” under the lid which I’m going to research now!

  9. Allison – Glad I could be of service! That’s great that you found a purse from your birth year. Very cool! And “Cowtown” on my blog is Kansas City (it’s one of its nicknames — it plays a big part in the cattle trade / meat packing industry).

  10. My husband and I had a seafood business in Jackson, Ms. for 30+ years and I had one of the first of these purses. Carolyn McDaniel and Nancy Steele were two of our customers. Jackson native, Carolyn, received a very special Christmas gift from her mother ,Gretchen Dickerson, during the 1960’s. Dickerson had found a wooden basket decorated with little houses in a Georgetown store and bought it with her daughter in mind. She personalized the purse by naming each house for Carolyn’s favorite things–one was named Kappa Alpha Theta for Carolyn’s sorority, and another for her favorite treat, Hershey’s chocolate. Everywhere Carolyn carried her purse, it drew comments and people wanted to know where to purchase one.
    When she mentioned this to her friend Nancy Steele, the two conceived the idea of decorating purses for their friends. They were so popular that the duo decided to create purses to sell. They took them to Eleanor Fitzhugh, owner of one of Jackson’s popular shops at the time, The Carriage House. Eventually, Fitzhugh carried the purses to market where they were a big hit, and the ladies received as many orders as they could fill.
    The pair named their new business Caro-Nan from the first syllables of their names. At first they decorated, lined, and painted purses in Nancy’s carport. Their families helped as well. Carolyn’s sons David and Doug spray-painted during spring break; Anne Steele Riley, Nancy’s daughter, glued pennies on top of each purse for good luck; and husbands Bill Steele and Max McDaniel packaged and shipped.
    As their business grew, they needed more help. When they mentioned this need to friends, many volunteered to help and work in their own carports. The purses provide fond memories for the painters. Nancy Walker decorated dozens and drew churches on most of hers. She also discovered other used for the purses, such as using them to display Christmas cards, and storing hand towels in the baskets year round. One advantage to working at home was that you could paint while doing other activities. Cindy Smith of Brookhaven, Ms. watched her baby while painting purses.
    For years after their initial boom, Caro-Nan purses were sold in vintage and antiques stores in all 50 states, Europe, and Australia. Recently, these Mississippi-made treasures have experienced popularity and a resurgence on the Internet. Customers who bought them years ago are now selling them on sites like eBay, providing the bags’ condition along with photographs. Purses in good condition bring excellent prices. Few products have enjoyed success in as many places as Jackson’s Caro-Nan purses.

  11. I love your story!
    Last week I found a similar bag in my local vintage shop in West Palm Beach. FL. Memories of my mom (who passed away one year ago to the exact day that I found this bag!!), came flooding back to me. My mom owned one of these bags in the 1970s. I can remember her driving me to school with that bag sitting between us!
    I grew up in the Boston area……..this vintage bag I just purchased has Martha’s Vineyard stores on it!! It was charma that I found it!
    I don’t know when Caroline and Nancy started selling their bags, but this bag looks EXACTLY like your bag above……it’s signed Karina 1959………with green felt lining. Maybe this wasn’t made by Caronan……..or maybe they got their idea from someone else? Maybe they signed their very early bags in a different manner?
    Any ideas?

  12. Thanks to everyone for the continued comments on this now two-year-old post! And Elizabeth, if you happen to see this: I’m not an expert collector of these bags, but yours does perhaps sound like a knock-off (unless it was *for* Karina?). Anyway, even if it’s not a CaroNan bag, it’s clearly inspired by them and part of the trend, and if it’s cute and has significance for you, who cares if it’s original! 🙂

  13. I live in Daytona Beach, Fl. and Daytona’s oldest boutique “Sussman’s” been in business since the early twentieth century, carried these basket handbags, I have found several over the years at estates sales and etc. and they all have Sussman’s written inside the lid, the graphics are business on Seabreeze Blvd and different landmarks around the town. I actually found three today. One is a round bag, never see the round ones before, it is from 1975. nice quilted inside. The other two are like the one you have. Love your story.

  14. I too have my owl Caro Nan purse and I love the nostalgia that it invokes from the artwork to just the basket purse itself. Wish I could add photos of it. We could start a nation wide base of their purses – a creative time line.

  15. My mother had one too! I loved it as a kid and I still have it. Today I decided to pull it from its resting spot in my bedroom and take a closer look. I saw the signature of the artist inside the purse and thought I should google her name to see what I could find. I’m so happy I did! I looked at the buildings on my purse and I realized it was made for a shop (The Knotical Shop) in Key West! We lived there in the early 70’s. The penny is still on top but I can’t read the date. I will treasure it for ever.

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