On my shopping trip to Brimfield Antique Show this summer I came across a bunch of Whiting and Davis mesh bags sitting in the bottom of a box full of other vintage purses. The dealer offered me a great price for taking the lot. Since I’ve always been attracted to their shimmer and smooth, slinky, liquid metal feel, how could I resist?
Over the years I’ve sold many vintage Whiting and Davis bags. They’re stylish and collectible, especially the much earlier ones, which unfortunately were not included in that box! But the ones I found (mostly 50s/60s) are still quite lovely.
The company is still in operation today. Their fine quality mesh bags are now manufactured overseas and average $200-400 each. But you can still pick up many of their USA made mid century era evening bags for much less.
I knew they had been in business since the 1800s , that they were Massachusetts based and that they also made mesh jewelry and other accessories. But that’s about it. So I decided to research more on the history behind these glamorous purses. And,wow, was I surprised. Read on for all the fascinating facts about these true masters of mesh.
Originally three men, Louis Heckman, William Wade and Edward Davis, founded a silversmith company in Plainville Mass., a small town close to Boston in 1876. They began by making sterling silver Victorian jewelry.
In 1892 , Charles Whiting, who had been an employee of the company for 10 years, wove their very first metal mesh purse by utilizing the ancient art of chainmail.
I guess Mr. Davis realized he had some serious talent and a potential great new product line, so in 1896 he partnered with Mr. Whiting to create the Whiting & Davis Company.
1900’s- In the earlier part of the century, and into the early 20s, the mesh bags were made of sterling silver, gold or vermeil (gold plating over silver) and fashioned completely by hand. Local ladies would actually sit in “sewing circles” knitting the metal links together, which, as you can just imagine, was a long, painstaking process.
This is an example of one of the earlier hand made purses. Available for sale on Ebay.
In 1912 an automated mesh machine was invented enabling mass production.
A 1923 Whiting and Davis ad for sale on Ebay
They even teamed up with famous designers Paul Poiret and Elsa Schiaparelli to produce special collections.
1929 Ad for Paul Poiret designed Whiting and Davis bags/ Source
1930s Vogue Ad-Whiting and Davis Bags after Schiaparelli
1930s Whiting and Davis patent leather finish purse ad/Source
1940s and 1950s- During WWII Whiting and Davis partnered with Raytheon to make radar equipment for the military. They even produced mesh for the US Navy to throw overboard to divert enemy sonar systems!
By the latter 40s and into the 1950s they were back at producing mesh purses and other fashion accessories.
1951 Whiting and Davis purse ad- for sale here.
1960s, 70s and 80s In 1963 Whiting and Davis introduced their Cleopatra Collection after collaborating with Vogue and 20th Century Fox to promote the film starring Elizabeth Taylor. In the ad below you can see their iconic snake bracelet. The mesh snake is estimated to have appeared as far back as the 1890s!
Jewels of Cleopatra Collection
In 1976 Whiting and Davis introduced their “Star Series” collection to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of their company. Source
The late 70s and into the 80s was prime time for glitzy fashion. The age of disco glam brought new fashion opportunities for the slinky metal mesh material.
1970s Whiting and Davis Bibb necklace and earrings. Available here.
70s Whiting and Davis cameo necklace.Available here
In 1976 Whiting and Davis asked Boston designer Anthony Ferrara to be their in house designer.
Sensuous halter tops and dresses ensued!
In 1989 Anthony Ferrara designed $532,000 18k gold and $100,000 sterling silver Whiting and Davis mesh dresses for an Absolute Vodka campaign.
1990s and beyond-
Through the 90s the company expanded its architectural mesh products to interior designers and architects. Their luxurious mesh , often used for draperies for the theater stage since the 1920s, was expanded for residential and home decor use.
In 2011 to celebrate their 135th anniversary the company returned to its fine jewelry roots with the debut of its Anniversary and Signature Collection of 18k gold and sterling silver mesh jewelry.
Examples from the Signature and Anniversary Collections, which were meant to marry their traditional design elements with modern styling. Source
Their mesh has unlimited uses, besides just fashion. The company also produces all kinds of personal safety gear, including shark suits for scuba divers, cutting gloves and butchers’ aprons!
Do you own any Whiting and Davis pieces?
Linking up with Catherine/Not Dressed as a Lamb for #SaturdayShareLinkup