Whiting & Davis Make Handbag History

Whiting & Davis Dresden
Dresden Mesh Purse with Original Tag by Whiting & Davis. Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

Whiting & Davis started in 1876 as Wade, Davis & Company in Plainville, Massachusetts. Even though the company is recognized primarily for making their quality metal mesh handbags, they actually began by producing jewelry such as brooches, bar pins, chatelaine chains, hat pins, and cuff links, according to the Whiting & Davis website.

Charles Whiting, first hired as an errand boy by Wade, Davis & Company in 1876, worked his way into management and eventually became a partner in the firm in 1886. The company name was changed at that time to Whiting & Davis. By 1907, Whiting was the sole owner of the company.

The First Whiting & Davis Metal Mesh Handbags

Charles Whiting made the first mesh bag for the new Whiting & Davis Company in 1892. The bags that followed over the next two decades were made completely by hand. In fact, many were made by local women in a “sewing circle” fashion who worked linking about 1,000 rings a day. This piece-work method of manufacturing proved to be a slow and laborious process and one that Whiting found to be unreliable.

The solution? Working with a young inventor named A.C. Pratt, Whiting developed an automated mesh machine in 1912. Mesh for handbags could then be produced at the rate of 400,000 links a day, and in varying sizes, which grew the company’s production capacity significantly, according to "Antique Purses" by Richard Holiner.

By 1920, the company expanded from 12 mesh production machines to 500. Company growth during this period was so rapid that a branch was opened in Canada, and offices were also maintained in New York City and Chicago, Illinois. By 1926 when a new factory was built, “Whiting & Davis was considered the world’s largest manufacturing house of its kind,” the company’s website touts.

From 1912 through 1925, most of the bags Whiting & Davis produced were fashioned of sterling silver or vermeil (essentially gold plating over sterling silver). These were small bags with silk linings and hand-engraved frames. Many of the frames were set with genuine sapphires and other colorful gemstones. In 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge carried a specially made gold handbag to her husband’s inauguration. But as the 1920s wore on, Whiting & Davis began to explore other lower-priced options for handbag manufacture, making them available to a wider clientele.

Enter the Era of Painted Mesh Bags

While some higher-priced bags combining sterling silver with gold-filled metal were also produced in the latter 1920s, an effort was made to “broaden appeal and lessen the price,” Holiner shared in his book. Bags were then made of base metals, silver or gold plated brass, copper, and nickel silver (a form of false silver), and the frames were machine stamped rather than hand engraved.

The flat mesh bags made during this period were painted with vivid patterns, while the fine mesh bags, also known as Dresden mesh, had softer hues and a more muted appearance. They were all decorated, according to Holiner, through silk screening accomplished over several days, with one color dried for 24 hours before another color was applied. In 1929, Whiting & Davis produced a large collection of mesh bags designed in conjunction with French fashion designer Paul Poiret, including what is now referenced as the Poiret Pouch.

Many clever and beautiful styles came about during this period including the Dylesia hinged bag fitted with a powder compact. Many bags with Art Deco themed enameling were also produced, and these are highly favored by collectors as are similar styles made by Mandalian Mfg. Co., a Whiting & Davis competitor.

By the mid-1930s, however, the company stopped producing the type of metal mesh handbag they’re most famous for, but they were far from out of business.

Handbags of the 1930s and Beyond

Whiting & Davis’s new outlook on handbag manufacture led to a promotional brochure titled “Hand in Hand with Fashion,” a slogan they also used in advertising during this time, and they continued to partner with big names in the fashion world.

As seen in advertising from the late 1930s in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Whiting & Davis teamed with famed French designer Elsa Schiaparelli to produce silk-lined handbags labeled “After Schiaparelli.” These bags were made of metal mesh in varying sizes predominantly in gold- and silver-tone colors. They were fashioned of the company’s Armor Mesh and their Beadlite mesh in a number of styles new to this era such as the envelope clutch.

White enameled bags made of larger bubbled mesh known as Alumesh were also manufactured during the late 1930s. These durable bags featured both metal mesh and handles made of plastic along with high-quality grosgrain fabric lining.

Many other gold- and silver-tone bags were also produced with rhinestone clasps and pouch styles with capped gate-top closures. These are not as expensive as their older painted mesh counterparts but still find a home in many handbag collections. The bags produced in the 1930s were of such high quality that they often appear much newer than they are, so a book like "Handbags" by Roseann Ettinger for Schiffer Publishing can help collectors aptly date them.

Wartime production caused Whiting & Davis to shift focus to a partnership with Raytheon making essential radar equipment during the World War II years. But the late 1940s and 1950s saw a return to the mesh purse business and a number of other items including purse ashtrays, wallets, and jewelry were made during this era.

In the 1980s, the company’s “Heritage Collection” saw styles hearkening vintage mesh purses made decades earlier being marketed once again. A number of other “revival” variations have been made over the years, and many of these bags are collectible in their own right now.

The Modern Whiting & Davis Company

After being run by family members of Charles Whiting through 1966, and several other iterations of ownership thereafter, handbags and purse accessories were licensed to Indolink Corp. in 1999. In 2010 the original company, which still produces metal mesh "fabric," was acquired by Darrin Cutler. The new owner revived the company’s jewelry business by introducing an anniversary line of fine sterling and gold jewelry to commemorate 135 years of Whiting & Davis quality in 2011.

Celebrities and fashionable ladies alike enjoy carrying both vintage and contemporary Whiting & Davis mesh bags today. This includes new designs such as mesh-covered minaudieres and enduring styles like their popular gate-top pouch bags.

Whiting & Davis
Whiting & Davis during Red Carpet '05 Oscar Suite. John Sciulli/Getty Images