John Romain Purses: the Must-Have Item from Childhood in the late 60’s

Recently I was discussing with friends the relativity of feeling poor while growing up, especially when it came to not being able to get things that it seemed “everyone else had.”

So here’s an interactive blog: Was there an item from your childhood that was a symbol of the times that you wanted so bad but couldn’t afford- a must-have item, that was so desired by all that it divided those who had them and those who didn’t into class identification of rich and poor?

There were several items that fit this description for me while growing up. I already blogged about being denied a Chatty Cathy and an Easy Bake Oven, due to limited finances on the part of my parents in my lower middle class upbringing.
But this blog is about an item that was hundreds of times more important than either of those toys.

The reason this item was so critical to me had everything to do with transitioning into being a junior high schooler, where so many new people were judging me based on looks and attire. As I explained before, I had numerous deficits going into junior high, as I was only barely 11 years old, having skipped a grade. So I was immature in many ways, undeveloped physically, and then to add more to this set of circumstances, I found out that I was more economically disadvantaged than most of our middle class suburban area.

In these middle school years, the pressure to be the same as everyone else gets so intensified, and though schools have smartly gone into uniforms, accessories can’t be regulated.

For me, the critical item was a John Romain purse. If you were a girl on the East Coast (or maybe all over the country) in junior high and high school in the late 60’s and early 70’s- you remember how essential to status these things were.

Thanks to education and a lot of hard work, I can pretty much buy any shiny new toy that I want, and if I wanted a John Romain or it’s equivalent today – I could just buy it. (and I did!)

This is the complete opposite of when I was growing up where my household focused on necessities. I had never classified myself as poor though because we had a place in our neighborhood, of middle to upper middle class homeowners, that we horrifically called “the projects,”  a subsided housing development. They were the poor ones. I distinctly remember feeling more sorry for them than haughty though, especially around the May carnival, when most of us had pocket change to spend on fun stuff, and some of those children did not.

Looking back now, I had no reason to feel superior anyway. We were barely scraping by, unlike my friend and neighbor Joy, whose father was a dentist and who had everything in the world that I desired. In fact most of my neighbors seemed to be doing much better than my family.

If I wanted to play with a Chatty Cathy, Barbie Doll or Easy Bake Oven,  I headed over there. Joy had it all.

My father, bless his heart, moonlighted as a taxi cab driver for extra money in those days. I remember taking some of his pocket change from him when I wanted candy money, or May carnival money, or later, a hot dog lunch at the cool place for pre-teens.

When I got to Junior High School, I became aware of income level differences for the first time and I felt both poor and deprived because the list of things others had that I wanted grew longer each day that I tried to fit in with everyone else.

I started babysitting in the sixth grade for clothes money to fit in with all of the well-dressed girls I went to school with who had all the latest fashions. The preppy Villager style of clothing was the rage then: things like A-lined skirts and matching cardigan sweaters worn with oxford shirts that had a semi-circle Peter Pan collar that was closed with what we called “circle pins.” (gold pins with the girls initials on them)
Although there were no uniforms in our public school, this was the definite uniform to be considered cool. (No pants allowed on girls in those days.)
The “have’s” also had initial rings and some of the boys had ID bracelets. Those were just a few of the status symbols of the day.

Aside from these beautiful clothes that I couldn’t afford, two main accessories tortured my existence in this era. One was a burgundy loafer called a “Weejun,” made by the Bass leather company with an adorable buckle and fringe.

The other was a purse called a “John Romain.” These purses were the ultimate preppy statement – made of burgundy colored rich leather, and a “jute” tweedy fabric, they included a metal lion symbol on the buckle that distinguished it from any lookalikes.

As if I didn’t have enough deficits in my gawky, awkward, pre-adolescent phase in junior high, I didn’t have either of these cool items. They quickly replaced any toy I ever wanted in my ultimate wish list.

My parents compromised on the Weejuns. Although I had already worn out my real leather Bass penny loafers the previous year – the Weejun style was more than my parents could afford, so they let me purchase an imitation Weejun. The color and thickness were slightly different, but being the clever girl I was, I went to the store and bought “oxblood” colored shoe polish, and the shoes passed pretty close muster after that. (I can’t believe how I remember the unusual name of that shoe polish color, but it was THAT important!)

That left the John Romain bag as the last of the elusive “pie in the sky” item I HAD to have.
No matter how much babysitting I did (at 50 cents an hour) the leather and tweed preppy purses were still way out of reach for me. I had such a feeling of longing and aching to have one, and perhaps it was not just for the item itself, but the status and acceptance that I was sure came with it.

In the spring of my seventh grade year, my best friend came to my rescue. Though she had no limit on spending and acquiring wonderful items such as Ladybug clothes, Weejuns and John Romain purses, she didn’t lend me, or even give me one of hers. She did one better.

That spring, John Romain came out with a line of straw purses. With less leather on them, and without the trademark tweed, they were lightweight and therefore much more reasonable than the other ones. My friend collected money from our mutual friends and for my birthday that year, they presented me with one of the best gifts I ever received.

Never before did I cherish an object more than this precious purse. With my imitation Weejuns and my John Romain, briefly, very briefly, I was way cool. I didn’t feel deficient or utterly lacking, or, well poor. When I carried that purse around, I felt like a princess.

John Romain 2

Didn’t get that one, but now this is in my collection – what a beaut!

Now that I can look back more objectively, though things were not easy to come by, compared to much of the world I now know, we were not poor at all – we had ample food, transportation and owned our own home. I guess my feeling of poverty came from comparing myself to the girls I grew up with who had everything of material value handed to them on a silver platter. I must say though, my appreciation for what I have as an adult, my life, my abundance and the people in my life count as much more important to me.
(The more read about my past though, the more you will come to understand why I have always had a bit of a shopping obsession.)

I know I am not alone in the feelings I described above, so now I am curious for some more nostalgia – what was your “must have” longed-for, yet unattainable item? And check out the photos of John Romain purses below – I ended up buying a few of these on Ebay as an adult.Iphonr copies 261

18 comments

  • I was just thinking about John Romain bags (whatever happened to them?!) and came across your site.

    We must be the same age. I remember all of those must have items when I was in junior high in the late 1960s. Like you I had to have a John Romain bag and I did get one which I cherished. I also remember many of the other girls having extensive wardrobes (or what seemed like it at the time) and my own collection of clothing was sparse. Oh, how I wished for some of those Villager & Ladybug clothes and I remember my mother saying that they were too expensive!

    I grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ which was a in a booming upscale suburb. My parents weren’t poor but didn’t believe in spending beyond the basics for me. Babysitting in those early years was one way of having some extra cash.

    I was grateful in more ways than one that when I got into high school in the fall of 1968 girls were finally able to wear pants! Not only were they more comfortable than skirts & dresses but by wearing the same jeans all the time one couldn’t tell if I had a lot of clothes or not. I wore the same few pairs of jeans over & over.

    At first we were told that they had to be nice pantsuits or slacks but that was ignored from the beginning. We wore hip hugger bell bottoms with tie dye tees. This was before expensive designer jeans took off a few years later.

    I just might look for a vintage John Romain bag now….thanks for bringing back some old memories!

  • Your story really hit home to me, too. We moved to the suburbs of Atlanta from a small town in Pennsylvania when I was in 6th grade. Being the oldest of four children from a family that did not have a lot, I didn’t have a clue at first about any of the status symbols of the times for junior high school girls, but I learned fast! I coveted the Weejuns, John Romain purses, and Villager clothing, but was stuck with the homespun dresses my mom made me and one nice pair of sturdy shoes for school (usually basic loafers or saddle oxfords). My mom taught me how to sew soon after we moved to Georgia and would let me pick out a few fabrics and patterns to make outfits. I would window shop at stores like Rich’s and Davidson’s, and a popular clothing store in our town of Marietta, called Lois Ashworth’s. Then I would set to making knock-off outfits that closely resembled what other girls had. I got pretty good at it! When I was 13, I started babysitting for many of my neighbors and even had an after school babysitting job every afternoon. I saved and saved, and got the Weejuns and the John Romain. After that I was able to start buying a few pieces of clothing from those stores that I once could only wish for. I remember one day in 9th grade, wearing John Romain sandals, headband, and purse, a girl in my class asked me if everything I owned was a John Romain! I couldn’t help smiling all day.

    These days I buy things I like, not for labels, but if I truly like them. However, I still look for vintage John Romain bags on eBay and Etsy, and buy them occasionally. Someday, maybe I will open a vintage store on Etsy and sell some of them. But for now, they bring back memories of being a girl that worked hard to get what she wanted, even if it was silly materialistic belongings.

    • Thanks for your very similar story! Good for you on both the sewing and the purchases! By the way, though it is not pictured here, I also bought the exact straw model that was gifted to me. I think now cell phones are the must have item. Such different times! There was nothing more beautiful and well constructed than these beautiful purses! Arlene

  • Christina Hausner

    The reporter covering Kate Spade’s death quoted Chelsea Clinton as saying that her first designer bag was a Kate Spade. I could barely retrieve the name of my first designer bag – although I could picture it – then it came to me, I googled it and got to this article.

    I grew up in the Phila western suburbs and I guess I was relatively privileged so I had the John Romain bag, the Weejuns, the A line plaid skirts with matching heather tone sweaters, and remember going to the Villager/Ladybug factory outlet stores for those iconic blouses.

    One day, my bag was stolen (at school) by another Great Valley High School student, and crazy enough, I recovered it the same afternoon when I saw the girl with it in a store about 2 miles from school. She was charged with theft, I did get the bag back but had to walk along the route she had driven in order to retrieve my wallet, hairbrush, autograph book, etc. , the contents of the bag she had thrown out the window of the car.

    I never really thought about it until I read this article. Clearly, she was someone who wasn’t stealing money – she threw out my wallet – it was that John Romain handbag, a very important status symbol that was beyond her means.

  • you had a joy, i had a margaret mary neighbor that had everything! similar era, and life experience. i had to wear the bo bo sneaks and had a knock off ken doll. i survived, and compared to today i think we had better childhoods!

  • This was an interesting read. I never felt the desire for any material things when I was in junior high school or high school. Actually, my junior high school years were a part of my elementary school years, since my elementary school went up to 8th grade. I was not an Oxford Circle girl, I lived on the “other side of the boulevard”, where Jews were in the minority. I was very naive, and was not aware of the distinction as I was growing up. My mother picked out my clothes until I started high school. I don’t remember objecting to whatever my mother brought home for me to wear… except one day, when she brought home a red dress. I was very upset, and said I would never wear red to school, nobody wore red! The dress just hung, unworn, in my closet. Other than that, I was very complacent.
    Then when I went to Girls’ High, teens were racially and economically diverse, coming from all parts of the city. I definitely did not identify with the “typical northeast Jewish girl”. Actually, I remember feeling pride in that. In an all girls school during the late sixties, I didn’t feel judged by what I wore. I was always into looking fashionable but never cared about labels. I’m still like that today. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t afford or wouldn’t buy something that was a label, but I don’t seek it out. If I buy something, name brand, it will be because I really love the item.

    • The competition was FIERCE where I grew up. You had to be like everyone else! I am glad this bypassed you! I will buy no label things but I have certain favorite labels too, where I seem to love everything they make.

  • Being one of seven children and only getting hand-me-downs from the neighbor girls, I never had any of those items. I remember wanting a John Romain bag and Weejuns so badly! I also wanted white go-go boots and patent leather shoes that tied with ribbons. Jackie Greenwood had several pairs of the patent shoes and let me wear a pair one night to a dance at Jardel. I wore an 8 and her’s were 6’s!! My toes have never been the same!
    Funny, now, I have no desire for designer anything! I definitely have depression mentality! My husband has to force me to buy clothing!!!
    Thanks for the memories!

  • WOW……This blog hits very close to home! I was fortunate to have Weejuns, and one John Romain bag, which were my pride and joy!
    I clearly remember my older, big sister taking me to Brownies discount store on Bustleton Avenue to root through racks and racks of clothing searching for Lady Bug clothes. When a designer article of clothing was found…..It was like hitting the lottery!
    My biggest desire was a gold, round initial pin to be place strategically between the collars of my butterflied collared blouse, which I never did get!
    Thanks for posting this “blast from the past” all of which were lying dormant in my old brain!

  • Enjoyed this blog & the description of your memories as you are absolutely correct in that everyone can identify with the sense of lack no matter what economic background but we can only recognize & understand why once we get to the “hot flash” stage of life. I did not know of John Romain purses as this is a just a few years before my time & interest but oh, they are lovely & I will be looking for these! Have a wonderful day! I will also go back & comment on FB….

  • Arlene, I totally relate! I have not heard or thought of those name brands in so many decades and I do remember wishing I could have those things. I couldn’t afford any of them, not a one. I immediate recognized those brands though- John Romaine, Ettienne, Villager and Ladybug, Weejuns and Bass shoes and that oxblood color. Once a year though, I did buy a few new cute school clothes and items at Kleins or Korvettes on sale and I loved that! Great, fun blog, Arlene! Nowadays, I don’t covet labels snd do enjoy the lovely things I have, but still love a good sale!

  • Good article. I loved all of these items too. One of my favs was m y initial handbag!!!

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