Get our newsletters

By the Way: 3,000 bags and growing


When she was a child Ilene Hochberg Wood was given her first “little girl” purse – and the magic began. “I was entranced,” said the fashion authority and author, “and that’s when I began my personal journey.”

Wood now owns the largest private collection of handbags in America – 3,000 and growing. More than 400 of these exquisite pieces of art will be exhibited in three Bethlehem museums. She believes bags offer “a coded message.”

The exhibit, PURSEonality, opens tomorrow and will continue through April 30. It features Wood’s signature collection of purses, clutches and handbags spanning three centuries. The multi-site exhibition basically traces the transformation of the handbag from its beginnings as a useful accessory to today’s fashion statement.

Fashionistas and others got a sneak peek at some of the rare bags at a preview fashion show and lecture at Durham Springs. Those attending the fund-raiser strolled around a dramatic and handsome installation featuring silver mannequins draped with several one-of-a-kind bags. A trio of musicians provided background music.

The preview was sponsored by Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites, a nonprofit group that spotlights three centuries of American history. It also featured pop-up shopping and a silent auction.

Wood talked about bags inspired by the works of such artists as Andy Warhol and Gustav Klimt. Wood said her bags form “probably the largest private collection of handbags in the world.”

The oldest piece in the collection is a needlepoint travel satchel, commonly known as a carpet bag, from the 1850s, an early version of today’s carry-on. Some bags she bought at thrift shops and yard sales for as little as 15 or 20 cents.

Others are priceless, such as the oversized red alligator Kelly bag made by Hermes and used by Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief ” in 1954.

Some of Wood’s favorite bags, made by Anne Marie of Paris, look like objects – a castle, a champagne bottle in an ice bucket, a telephone, a radio.

The bags in the PURSEonality exhibits are scattered in three Historic Bethlehem sites, the Kemmerer Museum of Decorative Arts, the Moravian Museum and America on Wheels.

Wood spoke about “what a bag means to our culture,” and said it is basically designed “to carry the essentials you need to conduct your day.” More important, though, she considers it “a coded message, the way you announce to the world the image you wish to convey.”

“Look at any woman and the bag she carries and you learn a lot about her and that image. Empty the bag out and examine its contents to learn who she really is inside,” she said.

Wood’s own image is an interesting one. Handbags are my jewelry,” she said, and added, “If you open my closet doors you’ll see nothing but black.” That’s her go-to color and she always uses one of her bags to accessorize her daily outfit.

Her ongoing mission has taken her from visiting thrift shops and yard sales to ordering custom bags from international artists and artisans. She even has a bag that bears her own portrait – a gutsy “gotcha” statement worn with a black dress.

Wood hopes that eventually her bags will travel to other museums and form the nucleus of an American Handbag Museum. For now, the exhibit in Bethlehem is a start and a big one, especially since Historic Moravian Bethlehem is already a National Historic Landmark District and is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Wood now lives in Emmaus but formerly had a home in Riegelsville. She is the author of Dogue, a canine version of Vogue magazine and Catmopolitan, a feline take-off of Cosmopolitan.