Whiting and Davis Bags and More

After finding a Whiting & Davis bag at a thrift store recently, I went on a reading binge to learn more about the company.  I’m happy to report that this old American company is still in business and is still making their products in Massachusetts.

Whiting & Davis actually started in 1876 as Wade, Davis and Company as a maker of jewelry.  In 1880, a 16 year old Charles Whiting was hired as an errand boy, but he rose up through the company to management by 1890, and in 1892 he made the first mesh handbag for the company.  During the early years of production, the bags were made by hand by women who made them in their homes by linking together the tiny metal rings that made up the mesh.

In 1896 Whiting became a partner in the company, and the name was changed to Whiting & Davis.  In 1907 he became the sole owner of the company.  By this time the cottage industry workers were barely keeping up with the demand for the purses, and Whiting must have realized that in order to grow he would have to mechanize.  In 1912 they developed an automated mesh making machine, and the industry was changed, and Mr. Whitings fortune was made.

Over the next few years improvements were made to the machine, and other types of mesh were developed, including the product most associated with Whiting and Davis, spider mesh, or armor mesh.  The nice thing about spider mesh was that it was easier to paint designs on than was the older, Dresden mesh of just the interlocking rings.  In the early days of production, most Whiting & Davis bags were made of sterling silver, but the faster production of the machines allowed them to experiment with other, cheaper metals.

By the mid 1920s, a mesh bag was a must-have accessory, and to meet the demand the Whiting & Davis grew to have 500 mesh making machines.  But styles change, and this could have been the end of the Whiting & Davis story, but the mesh proved to be adaptable to other purposes, and the company was willing to switch over from the chain handled bag of the 1920s to the more popular clutch style bag of the 1930s.  In the late 1930s they had an association with designer Elsa Schiaparelli, in which the bags were advertised as being based on Schiaparelli designs.

Click to see the details. Note the different types of mesh that were being produced in 1937.

The company also began producing other products such as mesh safety gloves.  This glove was produced after a mink farm went to them seeking a glove to protect their workers from bites.  The gloves proved to be valuable in other jobs, including that of garment cutters.

During WWII Whiting and Davis helped produce radar equipment, but when the war was over they went back to handbags and other accessories such as wallets and belts.  During the 1950s they also returned to the production of jewelry.  Their next big fashion moment was in the 1970s, when Whiting & Davis made mesh jewelry designed by Elsa Peretti for Tiffany and Co.

In 1979 Whiting & Davis went through a series of ownership changes.  Throughout that time handbags were still produced, but by the 1990s the company was steering away from handbags and jewelry and was developing more industrial safety products.  In 2010 the French owner of the company  decided to close the Massachusetts mesh making factory.

But this story has a happy ending.  The company was bought by plant manager Darrin Cutler who then set about to return the company to its roots as a handbag and jewelry maker.   Today both are made, along with other mesh products such as curtains.  And they will work with companies to develop mesh products to meet their needs.

To see photos of the mesh being made, there is an excellent article from  Boston Magazine.

I was surprised when I realized how many of these pieces I own.  Besides the two 1920s bags I have a belt, probably 1940s, a 1950s wallet and change purse and a 1970s neck piece.

The interior of the black and white bag, where you can better see the mesh construction.

Back and front of belt.

29 Comments

Filed under Collecting, Made in the USA, Vintage Clothing

29 responses to “Whiting and Davis Bags and More

  1. Teresa

    Gorgeous pieces Lizzie! Thanks so much for sharing the history of Whiting and Davis.

    We have a lot of vintage mesh handbags and purses in Australia, which were produced by Glomesh and Oroton during the 60s-80s. I have seen a few Whiting and Davis bags (mostly in antique places).

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  2. Another wonderful informative piece. Can I just say thank you for what you do? I enjoy reading your blog every day, and living vicariously through your and other collector’s finds! Thanks so much from another collector!

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  3. Ditto what Jill said! ;-)

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  4. Wow! This bag is stunning!! Thanks for sharing all of the info as well!!

    xoxo
    -Janey

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  5. what a wonderful find and I am so glad to hear they are still in business!

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  6. Fascinating! I know I have a couple little mesh bags that I inherited from my grandmother (although mine are rather plain & aren’t nearly as wonderful as yours!) – I need to go digging in my closet to see if they are Whiting & Davis.

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  7. what a wonderful find and I am so glad to hear they are still in business!

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  8. Caryn

    What great pieces and accompanying history! I picked up a mint-condition 1930s model clutch in its box at a flea market for $10 and was awed by the heft of the piece, the slinky nature of the mesh and its beauty. It instantly brought to mind all those swank dinner clubs of the 1930s movies, especially from the scene in “Bringing up Baby” in which Katherine Hepburn mixes her metallic clutch with someone else’s.

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  9. Your bag is stunning, Lizzie. Do you know its’ value today?

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    • I looked on etsy, and was a bit shocked at the asking prices. Looks like I got a bigger bargain than I thought, and so did Caryn who posted above.

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      • Karen

        Surprising, isn’t it? If you go on ebay, the prices go even higher! And your bag has the lining intact – these almost nevernevernever seem to feature a lining, and the mesh is more often than not separating from the frame at the hinges. Your bag is a beauty!
        I have begun collecting these in the past year or so – I purchased one on etsy for a mere $5; now I’m extremely hooked on these! Most of mine are from the 40′s (one black mesh clutch had 2 pennies in it from 43 and 47!) and one from the 60′s that looks brand new, as if its previous owner used it once and then put it away . . .

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  10. The geometric design on your bag is stunning. I toured the Whiting and Davis factory in the early 90s. The way the mesh is knitted is fascinating. The factory lent large sheets of aluminum mesh to be used as space dividers for a museum exhibition I curated. We had to return them when the show was over, but I still have the sample piece they gave me. I turned it into a tunic and use it each year for my Halloween costume!

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  11. More information about W&D and other vintage mesh purses, as well as news about the current W&D Company, can be found on our website, http://www.pursecollector.com
    Sherry & Mike Miller

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  12. Dany katz

    Does whiting and Davis make the women’s tshirts anymore?

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  13. Vicky

    I have a coin purse I think the model number is 2962 as it says inside .. do you happen to know what year is it?? I also have another bag that is bigger but it does not have any numbers on the inside, I have been trying to find out what year is it but I haven’t get any luck, do you know how can I find that info? I thank you in advance!

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    • I’m afraid I’m not an expert on Whiting and Davis. Maybe there are some vintage purse blogs that have the info you need. Good luck!

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      • To Vicky…The number on the inside of your purse is the model number of the frame, not the purse. Frames were used on different purse bodies and some frames were used in more than one year. The date your purse was made cannot be determined by the frame model and there is no written record that still exists of when each purse design was introduced. However, purses can be dated by other means. For general dating information go to our website http://www.pursecollector.com, select “Mesh Purse Info” from the menu, and read the article titled, “The Mysteries of Mesh”. Certain purse designs can be more closely dated by matching them to ads that appeared in vintage magazines and catalogs. If you care to send photos to the email address found on our website we might be able to tell you the approximate date the purse was first introduced.
        Sherry & Mike Miller

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  14. Ditto, Ditto, Ditto, Ditto ten fold. I will hunt some of my vintage purses and see who made them. ???? I have one purse that has scenes on it in many many tiny colored beads….Although it is falling apart, it is still pretty. Don’t know who made it….but I will check.

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  15. Pauline Wilcock

    Brilliant and inspiring! Thanks!

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  16. Pingback: Favourite Thifts: Vintage Whiting & Davis Mesh Bag | Bess Georgette

  17. I love those bags! I wish I could find some here in the uk

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  18. S Drury

    I was so happy to find your site thru looking at pictures of vintage bags – I inherited one from my sister – actually the one in your picture with the yellow dress. I used it for the first time today and saw the name and a number printed on the inside of the bag. The bag was still in a Joskes (a department store that was here in Texas) box and it doesn’t look like she ever used it. Since it was purchased at Joskes I am assuming she probable received it as a gift sometime in the 70′s. Sherry, if you are still around maybe you can confirm this. Thanks Susan

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  19. Pingback: Two Whiting and Davis Mesh Bags, 1924 | witness2fashion

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