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