Thrifting 101, Part 25: The history of Whiting and Davis

Some women enjoy roaming through the mall, welcoming the scent of perfumes and the colorful sight of a stack of cashmere sweaters. They languish in Starbucks, sipping their coffee delicately as they rummage though bags containing their purchases, tags glinting enticingly from packaging. They rest their weary feet on a stool at the cosmetics counters, delighting in a free makeover and the rich gloss of a new lipstick. Their day is relaxed, luxurious, and peppered with items both new and trendy.

Then there's me. I pull on my most comfortable flats and broken in jeans, and troll the dusty, pebbled aisles of flea markets. My eyes scan cluttered folding tables for the old, the unusual, the tattered and the worn. I chat with vendors, inquiring them to the history of their merchandise. Chances are, if it was unearthed from a construction site, excavated from some grandmother's closet, or freed from the trunk of an abandoned car, I want it. I haggle. I bargain. I cajole and I plead. I gently handle the fraying lace of a twenties chemise, the plush breath of a fox stole, the weathered buckles of a 1950's Oshkosh suitcase. This is my Mecca, the place where I belong.

I was trolling at the Columbus Avenue Flea in NYC last week, wandering through aisles crammed with old glass medicine bottles, vintage typewriters, embroidered linens and silver toasters when I happened upon a booth selling Whiting and Davis purses.

I have a thing for Whiting and Davis. I also have a thing for glass medicine bottles, and typewriters, and hand embroidered linens. But the purses were what I kept going back to. These little mesh clutches and evening bags managed to seem both delicate and indestructible, practical and ornate. I had a very clear visual of the women who carried them - society women, who danged these little treasures off their elegant arms at cocktail parties. But what was the history of the bag itself? This week, in part 24 of my Thrifting 101 series, I'm going to share what I learned about Whiting and Davis.

Whiting and Davis

In 1876, William H. Wade, Edward P. Davis and Louis Heckman formed a partnership for the manufacturing of jewelry - Wade, Davis & Company in the town of Plainville, Massachusetts. The firm manufactured fine jewelry such as brooches, bar pins, chatelaine chains, hat pins, cuff links, and others. In 1880 a 16 year old errand boy named Charles Whiting was hired at the rate of nine cents per hour. By 1890 he was raised into management as the company representative in New York City. In 1886 he partnered with Edward Davis and the name of the company changed to Whiting and Davis.

The first Whiting & Davis mesh handbag was handcrafted by Mr.Whiting in 1892. The small gold and sterling silver purses which the company produced were completely handcrafted until 1912. As Mr. Whiting reminisced in the 1926 Golden Anniversary WADCO News, “It was no unusual sight in the summer to ride through the country and see groups of women sitting under the trees in their yards making purses just as you would see them spending an afternoon sewing”.

Early 1930's Whiting and Davis bag

The history of mesh bags actually dates back to the Middle Ages, when Knights wore outfits made of chain mail mesh to protect them in battle. Skilled craftsmen made these durable outfits and would sometimes spend up to 3 years to complete their work of art. The earliest mesh bags were handmade in the 1700’s and it could take weeks to complete just one purse. The popularity of the mesh bag did not start growing until the 19th century. The handbag manufacturers subcontracted for the mesh to be made by workers in their homes and they would be paid upon completion. The most popular material to make these bags was German silver, gunmetal, or sterling.

In 1907 Charles Whiting became sole owner of the company. Seeking a faster more efficient method of manufacturing mesh, Mr. Whiting enlisted the help of A.C. Prat, who, in 1912, designed the world’s first automatic mesh machine. In a very short time, Whiting & Davis had taken center stage in the world of handbag fashion.

During the next 8 years many modifications to the machines took place, new mesh patterns were developed, and the company expanded from 12 mesh machines to 500 machines. The Whiting & Davis application for trademark indicates they make "Metal Mesh Bags, comprised Wholly or in part of metal that is not precious, in All sizes and forms, both soldered and woven mesh." They give July 29, 1921 as the first use of their logo. The trademark was renewed 3 times, last in 1983. The cancellation of the trademark is dated June 21, 2003.

1935 advertisement for Whiting and Davis, featuring screen star Beatrice Lilly

Early Whiting and Davis mesh material were sterling silver, 14 karat gold, 18 karat gold plate, silver plate, and gun metal. Different designs were made with the use of decorative frames and embossing. These were small bags with silk linings and hand engraved frames. Many were set with genuine sapphires and other 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.

While some higher priced bags combining sterling silver with gold-filled metal were also produced in the latter 1920s, an effort was made to lessen the price. Bags were then made of base metals, silver or gold plated brass, copper, and nickel-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 through silk screening accomplished over several days – one color dried for 24 hours before another color was applied.

Handpainted mesh handbag, 1920

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 ‘40s 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. 

1940's Whiting and Davis adjustable chain shoulder bag - this is the one I came home with!

 In the 1970's Whiting and Davis also produced 'Heritage' bags, with extra long chains for use as shoulder bags. These unique portrait bags of Renee Adoree (a famed silent movie actress), Marion Davis (actress and lady of William Randolf Hearst), Clark Gable (The King of Hollywood) and Charlie Chaplin (The Little Tramp of silent films) were known as The Star Series. They were wildly popular, but it's rumored the bulk of the production was recalled and destroyed because of threats of legal actions from the stars' heirs.

Marion Davis and Charlie Chaplin bags,

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

In the 1800’s, a mesh bag could be bought for $3.25. Depending on the condition and rarity of the purse, these bags can command prices up to $2,000.00 today. If you are lucky enough to stumble upon what you suspect is a vintage Whiting and Davis mesh purse, research the bag carefully and take it to several appraisers before selling (or keeping!) your new treasured handbag!

(Missed any previous parts of my Thrifting 101 series? Up to this point, the series has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store, thrifting for the clothing snob, recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores, tips for determining what days are the best for thrifting, a post where I explained my love for thrifting, advice regarding thrift store etiquette, tips for cleaning vintage leather, a post of my favorite thrifting and vintage blogs, tips for identifying and cleaning thrifted jewelry, advice for storing vintage and thrifted garments, and tips for shopping for vintage online. I also discussed influential periods in fashion - the 1920's through the 1950's; the 1960's; the 1970's; the 1980's; and the 1990's, and my favorite books on thrifting and vintage. For other parts, please do a search for Thrifting 101! )


  1. Truly interesting. I had not previously known about these bags. Doesn't sound like I'll stumble across one in a thrift store. Did you buy one?

  2. I bought the same bag as you did at an antique store. It was made in USA. I have another Whiting and Davis that I know is 20-25 years old and it is made in China. Is it possible to date the bags by where they were made?

  3. If it says made in china and Whiting and Davis on it, it's a knock-off. And I find Whiting and Davis bags every once and a while in thrift stores, you never know.

  4. How would I date my Whiting and Davis bag? There are some numbers stamped on the inside in addition to the MADE IN U.S.A. and the Whiting and Davis logo...what do those numbers mean?

  5. Below is a quote dated 1/5/12 from a Whiting & Davis spokesperson that appeared on their mesh purse Facebook page, , in regard to a question about where their purses are made.

    "Whiting & Davis Handbags Hi Sue- Thanks for your interest in our bags. In order to continue providing our customers with the product they love and at a reasonably price, Whiting & Davis moved production of handbags and purse accessories to China over 20 years ago."

    Information about dating the older Whiting & Davis mesh purses that were made in Plainville, MA can be found at . Click on Mesh Purse Info and read the article titled, "The Mysteries of Mesh". Bookmark this site to read more articles about mesh purse history that are planned for publication in the near future.

  6. I have a wallet and the lining is stamped with Whiting & Davis. No China label, is it Whiting & Davis?

  7. Stumbled on your blog while trying to research a Whiting and Davis bag I thrifted...first time I've ever seen these beauties! Thanks for the info, can't wait to dig into more of your blog, girl!

  8. I love that gold whiting and davis bag- gorgeous!!

  9. I have a love affair with Whiting and Davis as well! Both of my grandmothers gave me a few from their collections. They're so beautiful that collecting becomes addicting, which then turned into me opening a vintage shop. I love the one with the tiger stripes that you came home with. It's gorgeous!


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