In the way that Hermès scarves make outfits stylish today, fashion-forward women in the 1960s and ‘70s sported brightly jeweled box-shaped purses and fabric-covered totes made by Collins of Texas.
The handbags are immediately recognizable with their sparkling flowers, trees, birds, animals, ocean scenes, and even oil wells gushing jewels. I recall as a child trying to dislodge the faux gold coins that decorated my mother’s “Money Tree” purse to put them to better use. Locally the purses were sold at Julian Gold and the sadly defunct department stores Scrivener’s, Joske’s, and Frost Brothers.
Obviously, Collins of Texas was based somewhere in Texas, but this is a big state. Until reading a new book named after the bags’ creator, Enid Collins, I had no idea they were manufactured so close to home: in Medina, a tiny town 13 miles northwest of that other southwest Hill Country metropolis, Bandera.
Collins’ son, Fredericksburg jewelry designer Jeep Collins, is the author of Enid, published in April and available here. It presents an inside view of how his parents came to design and manufacture the bags out of sheer poverty, never dreaming that Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and boutiques nationwide and beyond would end up featuring them in their windows.
Enid and Frederic Collins met in San Antonio while she was teaching art at the Witte Museum, in 1940, and he was trying to make it as a sculptor. Two weeks after meeting they married and, for reasons left unexplained, settled in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, though their families lived in Texas.
The couple worked as part of the war effort and at night crafted small horse sculptures Fred Collins developed for buyers who, like him, romanticized the American West. Both dreamed of owning real horses near Bandera, where they had courted. By 1947 they had saved enough money to buy a rough piece of land on the Medina River, 14 miles outside the town of Medina. It had an unpainted house with an outhouse, pot-bellied stove, and no electricity or plumbing. By 1950 the family still cut wood for heating yet bought their first TV. The connection to the antenna was strung up a hill.
But as Jeep Collins writes, “It was the house of a pauper in the valley of a king” given the majesty of its canyons and craggy terrain. Electricity arrived and Fred Collins turned a shed into a foundry for making horse statues, but demand had evaporated. Nor was he cut out for ranching. Enid Collins, perhaps drawing on the fashion design she studied at Texas Women’s University, recalled a leather handbag a friend had bought in Greenwich Village during the war.
“I was intrigued with the possibilities – and with Frederic’s ability to sculpture in metal – we bought one hide of leather and made a bag for me,” the book quotes from Collins’ journals. “It was really handsome – enough so that several people we knew wanted one – so we kept at it.”
She called the bags conversation pieces with their novel design and materials, her husband’s sculpted brass closures, and mahogany bottoms. Purchases as well as buzz ensued. Soon, Neiman Marcus ordered an exclusive line. Fred Collins hit the road with samples and hand-drawn catalogs in 1947 until a small army of sales reps took over.
“Wherever the line was placed, it got attention,” Jeep Collins writes. “Store owners would see the bags in another store and want it for theirs.”
He and his only sibling, Cynthia, worked in various departments when they grew old enough.
Sales eventually pushed manufacturing off the ranch and into Medina, employing anyone available there and in Bandera, helping both towns prosper. Notably, all but one department manager – in jeweling, screen printing, die-cutting, assembly – were women. Demand for the bags was so high that two shifts worked in circus tents while a new plant was under construction. Sales reps traveled the country taking orders.
Enid Collins not only was the purses’ sole designer but also served as marketing director, at which she excelled. In a letter to her sister giving advice about improving a hamburger shop, her philosophy is clear: “Make something good, something with personality, glamorize it like hell, and then get up and brag about it loudly!”
In the same letter she describes her new world, a contrast to Medina: “I love my job! The pay is pretty lousy – but oh, the fringe benefits! Sales trips to places I couldn’t go otherwise, the high type of people we meet and do business with.” She frequented resorts, aristocratic enclaves, and the Algonquin Hotel when visiting her Fifth Avenue showroom.
When a prestigious store in Asia began selling her totes, as Enid Collins wrote in the company’s newsletter, she may have reached a tipping point: “It really gives [one] a feeling of mixed emotions to sit here in a tiny town, high in the Texas Hill Country, with no rail-roads, buses or industries, and visualize our handbags being presented by the finest specialty shops and department stores to customers in all part of the world! Where…O…Where…will we go next?”
Where she went next came as a surprise to me but bore out her new identity as a jetsetter – and her husband’s preference for managing the plant and sailing from their new lakehouse at Granite Shoals.
After their divorce in about 1968, Enid and Fred Collins continued to work as co-designer and manufacturer until after the company was sold to Tandy’s in 1970.
While Enid Collins came to regret the divorce, the deepest cut came when the new owner pushed Fred, then her, out of the business. She restored a house in Fredericksburg and took classes at the Southwest Craft Center, now the Southwest School of Art, and sister Jo came to live with her. She became friends with several San Antonians and took up quilting.
Jeep Collins writes at length about his Christian faith and the importance of his mother’s conversion late in life. Their shared belief may have softened his ambiguous feelings about her as a demanding and even mean mom and boss. When a staff member knocked on her office door while she was napping, she tore into him; when daughter Cynthia threw up during a photo shoot for the New Yorker in Puerto Rico, she explained that she and her husband had conceived.
Rather than express glee over her first grandchild, Enid Collins was furious.
“’How could you? You can’t imagine how much money we’re paying [the photographer] to be here. …’”
When Jeep Collins married in 1973, he chose to go to a justice of the peace in Fredericksburg with only his sister and her husband attending. His mother was hurt at being excluded “but she understood and welcomed Dana as a daughter.”
What there was to “understand” – presumably the divorce – is but one example of how Enid would have benefited from editorial oversight. Repetition, chronological uncertainty, factual errors, and a plethora of the author’s charming but unrelated memories are others.
Recognizing that the behavior of strong women should be no more heinous than strong men’s, being the child of a strong woman and gentle father is another matter. Jeep Collins has made a loving and honest attempt to record his experience, which cannot have been easy. And while he is the only remaining member of the Collins purse-making clan, its legacy continues: Last week I saw a blue-jeweled tote with the iconic “ec” signature at a Blanco Road resale shop.