As women started to become independent, they needed handbags to suit many occasions – a generous leather bag for traveling, a tiny purse for shopping trips, a beaded or embroidered bag for evenings.
During the 1920s, early plastics started to be used to make handbag bodies and frames, although leather and fabric bags made with metal – even solid silver – frames continued to be popular.
By the end of the period, the Jazz Age had taken hold, and Flapper girls were dancing the Charleston with delicate beaded purses hanging from their wrists.
Beaded bags are the most collectable and often the most valuable vintage bags – a reflection of the hours of work that went into them, and of their fragile nature. The bright colors and intricate workmanship often make them more suited to display than to use, but that does not diminish their appeal.
Beaded bags have been popular since the early 19th century. In the 1910s and 1920s, manufacturers used Venetian or Bohemian beads. Venetian beads are very small, slightly iridescent, and with a pure color that does not fade. Bohemian beads tend to be larger and coarser and to fade over time.
Clasps and handles are usually metal and often inset with glass or semi-precious stones. Bags were often lined with silk, which may have deteriorated far more than the exterior. A sympathetic replacement can enhance the value of a bag.
When buying beaded bags, consider whether the design suits the beads from which it is made.
METAL MESH BAGS
It was in the 1820s that handbags were first made from precious metals. By the end of the 19th century, mesh coin and finger purses, inspired by the trend for Medieval fashion, were in vogue; however, they were hand-made and therefore expensive. In 1908, A.C. Pratt of Newark, New Jersey patented a mesh machine, enabling people to make affordable, mass-produced bags and, by 1912, mesh bags were all the rage.
The major manufacturers included Whiting and Davis, probably the biggest and most famous mesh bag maker and still making mesh bags today, and the Mandalian Manufacturing Co. of North Attleboro, Massachusets, which closed in the 1940s.
In the 1920s it became possible to screen-print designs onto the mesh. As a result, bags could be made in a rainbow of colors and designs, including enamel and pearlized finishes.
WHITING & DAVIS
The Whiting & Davis company has become synonymous with high-quality mesh bags. These have been produced from the company’s inception in 1876, in Plainville, Massachusetts, to the 1940s and beyond.
Prior to 1910, the mesh was made by hand using soldered silver loops, but the process was mechanized by 1920. Early bags tended to be fairly plain, although some top-of-the range examples featured ornate jeweled handles or even tiny clocks. As the 1920s progressed, hues got brighter and patterns became bolder and more geometric.
Cheaper ranges sometimes featured printed designs rather than the more typical decoration of colored metals. Some of the most glamorous bags were designed in the 1930s by well-known couturiers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret.
Mesh bags fell out of favor during the mid-20th century, and Whiting & Davis began to concentrate on other mesh products such as jewelry. However, the bags became popular again during the disco craze of the 1970s.
HAND-TOOLED LEATHER BAGS
The Arts and Crafts period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a renewed belief in traditional craftsmanship. This trend led to a rise in the popularity of simple hand-tooled leather bags, which continued into the Art Nouveau period. The bags were made from English or Spanish leather in traditional styles.
They often had a fold-over flap, which allowed room for decoration – typically, natural forms such as curling leaves, acorns, and stylized flowers, which appealed to contemporary tastes.
As a reaction against Victorian mass-production and mechanization, bags were hand-made in workshops, often in rural locations. In the United States, many were made at the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, New York, which housed a group of artists dedicated to working in leather in the style of William Morris.
Frederick Kranz and H.E. Kaser Leather Corporation also made hand-tooled bags. The look rather fell out of fashion in the 1930s, although examples are still produced today.
Next: 1930s – 1940s
Home: Handbag History