NEW YORK – Paired with the quintessential little black dress for an evening function, Whiting & Davis metallic mesh bags are so striking they can become the jewelry in one’s outfit all by themselves. Having clean lines and a shimmering metallic surface, these small silk-lined purses have been favorite accessories by fashionistas for decades. The bags, usually featuring sterling silver chain mesh or golden vermeil, had hand-engraved frames and were often decorated with colorful gemstones.
These diminutive bags can’t hold much – maybe a pair of keys and a modern cell phone – but they pack a big style punch. At the height of their popularity, the company was selling a million bags a year, which have been embraced by women from all walks of life. While popular for decades, Whiting Davis mesh bags were especially fashionable during the disco era of the 1970s especially apropos when worn with a Halston lamé jumpsuit.
William H. Wade, Edward P. Davis and Louis Heckman founded the Wade Davis & Co. in 1876 in Plainville, Mass. Whiting came up with the design for their first mesh bag in 1892, with all rings formed and joined by hand. Four years later, he and Davis launched a partnership and renamed the firm as it the Whiting & Davis Co. For two decades, groups of women in the factory would work, linking chain rings together by hand, reportedly doing about 1,000 rings a day. The turning point in the company’s history came in 1912 with the advent of a machine that automated the mesh-making process. The company is America’s oldest handbag manufacturer and in the mid-1920s was said to also be one of the country’s biggest manufacturing firms. It had offices in New York, Chicago and Canada at the time and today is still selling American-made products from its headquarters in Massachusetts.
Vintage fashion dealer Elaine Klausman of Vintage With a Twist in Bedford, N.Y., said people love the squishy feel of these bags and their style is so universal, they look great with jeans or an evening dress. “They have a very high fashion look that has lasted through the years,” she said.
Styles and sizes have varied for these mesh bags over the years, but most had a flat or a V-shaped bottom, sometimes adorned with a row of fringe hanging off the bottom. They were often set with a sapphire in the clasp. While gold and silver bags were the company’s bread and butter early on, colorful bags were also offered in later decades. A vintage ad from 1939-40 offered such items as “a graceful Whiting and Davis Beadlite pouch bag with chain,” silk-lined and in red, blue or green for $1.75 or a “new style mesh bag … choice of Armor or Beadlite mesh in gold or silver” in non-tarnishing mesh for $2.25. These bags today routinely sell for several hundred dollars each, while rare examples sometimes bring several thousand dollars.
“In the teens and early ’20s, Whiting & Davis bags are made of small precious metal rings and are unpainted for the most part, their striking designs coming from a mixture of metal colors, artfully joined rings and metal fringe,” according to a company history on its website. “By the end of the ’20s, flat Armor mesh painted in bold Deco designs and Dresden mesh, with its tiny rings silkscreened by hand in dreamy Impressionistic shades, take center stage.”
Successful partnerships in the 1930s with renowned designers Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli, further cemented the company’s reputation for quality purses, carried by flappers, movie stars and regular women. Poiret’s designs added “Parisian allure” to the bags while Schiaparelli debuted new and modern shaping.
After a production hiatus in the 1940s to support the war effort, the company returned to creating its iconic mesh handbags and soon embraced midcentury modern styling that was all the rage.
“Both Poiret and Schiaparelli were influential in changing the look of the purse,” said Lélia Teixeira, sales manager of Whiting & Davis in Attleboro Falls, Mass. “Their designs turned the purses from ornamental delicate shapes to a more functional design that could be used to carry more than a key and handkerchief.”
Keeping current with fashion trends while providing timeless styling lies at the heart of the appeal of these mesh bags, which are still made in Massachusetts today.
“We believe that the Whiting & Davis appeal throughout the decades has been the quality, craftsmanship and the classical styles,” says Teixeira. “Whiting & Davis has always had the motto that our styles should be ‘hand in hand with fashion.’”