Miser’s purses are known by many names: Misers, miser bags, ring or string purses, stocking purses, and finger purses to name a few. They originated in the late eighteenth century and were popular into the early 1900’s. These purses were used by both men and women and usually were long, almost stocking looking.
Some scholars believe the design of the purse was a revival of the Medieval practice of carrying one’s coins in the toe of a stocking. A similar tube-shaped purse fastened with rings at each end had been popular with men during the 16th century. It is not entirely clear how the nickname “miser purse” came about. One theory is that they were so called because they were made to disgorge a single coin or just a few coins at a time, or because the design ensured that coins were secure and difficult to lose. In the 18th century, men sometimes wore them hidden inside a sleeve, which is another possible source of the name “miser purse.”
Narrow in the middle and closed at both ends, miser’s purses ranged in the course of their history from 4 to 36 inches long. During the Victorian era, many miser’s purses were from 8 to 10 inches long. The “toes” of the purse, might be of the same or different shapes, often are tasselled, beaded, or fringed. A short slit in the narrow midsection of fabric let the carrier drop coins or other small objects into either end of the tube. It could be closed off by moving two rings, or sliders, of different materials including steel, brass, silver, gold, or mother-of-pearl toward the ends, gathering the fabric snugly around the contents. The miser purse was either knitted, netted, knotted, or crocheted, using silk, cotton, wool, and sometimes metallic thread. They were often beaded.
When miser’s purses were designed with one rounded and one square end, the different shapes had a purpose: in the frequently poor lighting the correct coins could be withdrawn by feel. The square end with fringe might contain silver coins and a contrasting diamond, round, gathered or tasselled end, gold coins.
The video below from The Smithsonian gives a wonderful demonstration by Laura Camerlengo, author of the DesignFile e-book The Miser’s Purse. All the photos of extant miser’s purses are from the Regency to Victorian eras unless otherwise noted.