Friday, May 27, 2022

Ahead of Her Time: Tax Activist Vivien Kellems

1944 "She" magazine with Vivien Kellems on the cover. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Vivien Kellems (1896-1975) was an inventor and businesswoman who refused to collect withholding taxes from her employees, saying it was double-taxation and unconstitutional. It's unclear what her opinion was on the 20 percent US federal excise "luxury" tax on many women-centric items, but it's interesting to note that on the same day the handbag tax went into effect, there was a smear campaign against Miss Kellems, linking her to a boyfriend who was allegedly a Nazi spy.

The 1944 newspaper clip below shows the news about the newly implemented luxury taxes and a separate article about the Kellems' rumor, later disproven.

Vivien Kellems challenged taxation policies until her death, but remains an icon of the fight against unfair taxation. Among her most memorable quotes is, "Our tax law is a 1,598-page hydra-headed monster and I'm going to attack and attack and attack until I have ironed out every fault in it."


01 Apr 1944, Sat Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont)

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Journalist Frederick Othman, Friend of The Cause

Columnist Frederick C. Othman (1905-1958) wrote about the tax and its impact on consumers and handbag manufacturers. Despite employing his trademark sarcasm in the 1947 article below, Othman was clearly stating that women's handbags were as much of a luxury as men's pants. That is, not at all. Citing a woman's supposed fear of looking lumpy to make that point wouldn’t be acceptable today, but it’s true that only a small percentage of 1940s women's dresses were made with pockets. Even 1940s dresses that did have pockets weren't roomy enough to hold the entire contents of a purse.

13 Jun 1947, Fri Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York)

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Journalist Dorothy Roe

Among the many journalists referred to in "Pain in the Purse" is Dorothy Roe. In her fashion column, she wrote about how to avoid the tax by either crafting your own bag or buying a really good leather one that would last. Dorothy Roe also wrote the 1961 book "The Trouble with Women is Men." In it she quotes magazine editor John Fischer as theorizing, among other things, in his August 1958 article "The Non-Sexual Behavior of the Human Female," that women are "deciduous," and they shed "gloves, lipstick, handbags and handkerchiefs as a tree sheds leaves, while men spend their lives picking up after them!"

This cavalier attitude about women and their supposed bad behaviors was not Fischer's alone. "Pain in the Purse" cites similar instances of flippancy among male writers and politicians with regard to the handbag tax.

Dorothy Roe's 1961 book, from the collection of Wendy Dager/The Vintage Purse Museum.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Manicure Set with Original Excise Tax Tag

Not only were handbags taxed at 20 percent from 1944-1954, but also items that fell into this category of "luxury" items, including luggage, wallets, key fobs and manicure sets.

1940s manicure set from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum with original excise tax tag.

Closeup of tag.
23 Nov 1948, Tue The Algona Upper Des Moines (Algona, Iowa)

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Crafters

While many vintage clothing collectors are under the impression that the trend of home-crafted handbags peaked during and directly after World War II because of materials shortages, there was no rationing of handbags. There was, however, a limit on leather use at the manufacturing level, so traditional purse makers had to resort to unconventional materials such as plastics, which led to the creation of many unusual 1940s-1950s handbags.

However, in the book Pain in the Purse: The Tax That Changed Handbag History, you'll see proof that home crafters were crocheting bags using patterns such as the one below because they were simply trying to avoid the handbag tax on store-bought purses.

1945 Spool Cotton Company pattern book from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum. This book still has the 10-cent price tag from Indiana-based Morris 5-cents to $1 Store inside its cover.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Advice Was Ignored

Author Harold M. Groves ((1897-1969, state senator, economist, tax expert and University of Wisconsin professor) wrote the 1944 book Production, Jobs and Taxes, in which there was a small mention of federal excise taxes. Groves said that taxes on necessities “are objectionable from the standpoint of equity because they fall most heavily upon low-income families.” Although he didn't specify what should be considered a necessity and not, as in the determination of handbags, a "luxury," he also said, “If during the war the federal government launches upon a general sales-tax program, these levies should be the first to go when the war ends.”

1944 book by Harold M. Groves, from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Tax Was on Many Women-centric Items

Not only did the 1944-1965 US federal excise tax cover handbags, luggage, wallets, key fobs and manicure sets, it was also placed on other women-centric items, including face creams, furs and jewelry. This original press photo from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum is dated February 21, 1944, two months prior to the implementation of the 20 percent FET. At this time, jewelry was "only" taxed at ten percent. There were problematic issues that came with the convolution of income tax, "victory" tax, pay-as-you-go taxation and the federal excise taxes on items that were deemed luxuries. The photo--and, presumably, its accompanying article--concerned the inability to deduct luxury taxes from income tax.

Photo illustration representing the jewelry "luxury" tax and the inability to deduct it from one's income tax. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum

The recommended caption for the publication of the press photo above, on its reverse.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Handbags Were Not Rationed During WWII

Leather was in short supply during World War II as it was being used for the war effort. While shoes were rationed, handbags were not. Still, purse manufacturers themselves were under ration orders, which is why they turned to unconventional materials during the war. Many of their designs were modeled on the bags made by home-crafters.

Original shoe ration coupon from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Buying Frenzy

The April 1, 1944 (April Fool's Day!) implementation of new Federal Excise Taxes created a rush on a variety of goods. The public couldn't have known that the tax would last another twenty years.

31 Mar 1944, Fri The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware)

Friday, December 10, 2021

Wartime Shortages Weren't The Only Reason

It is commonly known that many 1940s-1950s handbags were created from unconventional materials by traditional manufacturers as well as home crafters due to World War II shortages. While this is true to some extent, there is another reason. In 1944, the US government placed a whopping 20% federal excise "luxury" tax on handbags. This meant that a $3 purse purchased at a department store would cost an additional 60 cents tax at a time when minimum wage was 30 cents an hour. This led to many women crafting their own from patterns, which is why there was an upswing in sales of raw materials such as crochet cord, zippers and zipper pulls, which were not subject to the tax.

Below are some examples of home-crafted handbags and a photo of a woman carrying a similar purse. Bags and original photo from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum. 1944 newspaper article clipped via paid subscription to

06 Aug 1944, Sun Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Pain in The Purse: The Tax That Changed Handbag History - Now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle ebook

In this micro-history by award-winning writer Wendy Dager, you'll learn that on April 1, 1944, the American people were subject to a federal excise tax that encompassed a large number of items the US government had deemed luxuries. Among them were handbags, a necessity that cost consumers an additional 20% of their retail value. Twenty years of FET had an enormous impact on much more than the pocketbook. An early form of today's "pink tax," it was placed on numerous women-centric items, including jewelry, furs and face creams. This tax affected industries, feminism, politics and journalism, and forever altered the designs of mid-century purses, which remain a fashion staple.

Purchase today in paperback or Kindle ebook

Monday, December 6, 2021

Three Years Before The Handbag Tax

It all started in 1941, when excise taxes were placed on a number of items deemed luxuries by the US government. These "luxuries" included telephone services, light bulbs and cosmetics. Also luggage, which was certainly not a luxury item for the military families that had to move frequently due to war assignments. By 1944, more items were added to these special tax assessments, including handbags, an expansion of the luggage category.

This original 1941 press photo appeared in numerous newspapers and is now in the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Coming Soon to Amazon: Pain In the Purse: The Tax That Changed Handbag History by Wendy Dager

Welcome to the blog of Pain in The Purse: The Tax That Changed Handbag History by Wendy Dager, curator of The Vintage Purse Museum. This unique micro-history details the story behind the "forgotten" 20 percent US federal excise "luxury" tax placed on handbags from 1944-1965. We'll be posting bonus photos and information in this space, so keep checking back.