1890s–1920s

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.

Beadwork bag with beaded fringe.
Late 19th century

Beadwork bag with floral decoration and tassel, gilt metal frame, and chain strap. c.1900

Pale blue beadwork réticule, with cream cotton lining and navy blue silk top and drawstring. c.1900

BEADING

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.

Gold silk purse with rows of clear yellow beads, columns of orange rhinestones, gilt metal frame, and chain strap; lined with cream silk. 1920s

Metallic and satin réticule, lined with red cotton. 1900s

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.

“Puffy” beaded purse, with pale blue geometric design on brown ground, gold-tone clasp, beaded handle, and blue silk lining.

Purse with unusual decoration including trapunto, chain stitch, and beadlike French knots; also has rose gold effect frame and chain strap

Richly detailed Art Nouveau beaded bag, with celluloid clasp. c.1900

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.

Enameled mesh handbag, with metal clasp in Art Nouveau design. c.1920

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.

French-cut steel handbag with floral motif; also has gilt metal clasp and chain straps. c.1910

French cut steel handbag with fringe, and with gilt metal clasp and handles. c.1910

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.

1940s American gold mesh bag with brass frame, chain strap, and rhinestone-decorated clasp; labeled “Whiting & Davis Co. Mesh Bags.” c.1940

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.

Whiting & Davis Art Deco mesh purse with enamel geometric decoration on bag and clasp; signed

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.

Alligator-skin handbag with brass hardware. 1920s

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.

Art Nouveau bag with hand-tooled grape motif; also has embossed logo on body and “Gemco” stamp on frame. 1915

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.

Tooled and colored leather clutch bag, lined with beige moiré silk. c.1920

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.

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