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.
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.