Speaking of Antiquing – June 2017

It’s often said that we are slaves to fashion. Such was the case with the mesh envelope bag and the elegant, beaded handbag. These handbags, so loved by the 1920’s Flappers, were quite fashionable until well into the 1950s. Even now, these vintage handbags are carried as evening accessories by fashionistas and prom-goers alike.

Soldered mesh, sterling silver mesh, and German silver were the materials most used in making the envelope handbags. The soldered mesh was made by women workers who often took the work home and had their families help in the production of linking one link at a time and soldering the joint. Most women could join about 1,000 links a day, creating limited production, but increasing the cost of the bag. In 1912, Charles Whiting partnered with an inventor to patent the first automatic mesh machine. Young A. C. Pratt and Mr. Whiting’s machine could now replace the 1,000 links a day per worker with 400,000 links a day. This boosted production…soon the sterling silver bags were being replaced with gold-plated brass, copper, and nickel silver, making them more affordable and extremely popular.

The stylish beaded handbags were made in France for the most part and were expensive. They were hand beaded with colorful glass seed beads, lined with silk and adorned with ornate frames and claps. One could not collect all the patterns and styles. An inexpensive do-it-yourself kit was available giving the American woman the ability to make her own. It included the frame, beads, and lining. (I’d love to find one of those!)

Flapper bags, carried at the wrist, featured fringes and tassels at the bottom creating movement when the wearer danced, causing quite a striking image. Mesh bags were silk-screen painted with designs of stunningly colorful birds, bold geometrics, and bunches of flowers. The silk screening was done by hand over a period of several days. Each color needed 24 hours to dry before the next color was applied.

The frames for the bags were also fine metals, embossed with flowers, scrolls or geometric designs, set with semi-precious stones, or painted enamel. A linked chain served as a handle and most were fitted with a snap clasp.

Whiting & Davis of Plainville, Massachusetts, is still in business today, but discontinued envelope bag production in the mid 1930’s.

Collecting these bags is easy, but not always inexpensive. Both types of bags may be found in most antique shops, online auctions, and estate sales.

Mesh bags were unlined, which is one reason that they have retained their functionality. Beaded handbags were lined with silk which deteriorates over many years making it difficult to find a bag from this same era that is not in distress.

If you need to clean either type of bag, I suggest you do it carefully with a slightly dampened cotton or flannel cloth. Try not to get the silk wet.

At Pickety Place we have a collection of mesh and beaded bags for you to choose from.