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What's Up Magazine

The Ultimate Accessory Vintage Evening Bags Add Glamour

Nov 09, 2010 08:54PM ● By Anonymous


As with many other kinds of vintage accessories, the fancier bags, for special occasions, were more likely to survive. These were seldom used, carefully stored, and handed down from mother to daughter. Inherited collections often include mesh, beaded, and crocheted bags from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you want to start out with bags that are a little less pricey look for early leather and fabric bags, as well as more unusual bags from the 1950s and ’60s made of metal and Lucite.

The earliest handbags available for purchase generally date from the mid-1800s. Many people are most familiar with colorful beaded bags, but there were also fine bags made of leather, silk, linen, and plush. Beaded bags endured the longest because the beads form a protective layer over the threads and fabric. Leather bags made before the 1920s are hard to find because they generally were used until they wore out and then thrown away.

Mesh bags were very durable. They were first made of woven mesh, in the early 1800s. By the 1890s chain mesh, coin-like discs joined by links, was used. Enameling over the mesh was a decorating device first introduced in the 1920s. One manufacturer of mesh bags highly sought after by collectors and still in business today is Whiting and Davis. Prices for collectible Whiting and Davis bags range from $60 to $300.

To date a beaded bag, look at the beads. Before the 1850s the beads used were smaller and deeper in color than those used later. The use of cut steel beads began in the 1840s and continued through the 1930s. Linen was used as a handbag material during< the early 1800s, while plush was preferred during the 1880s. Bag designs reflect the style that was also popular in clothing and interior decoration—and sometimes many other fields as well— when they were made. For example, Egyptian motifs and geometric designs are often seen on 1920s handbags due to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the popularity of the style that would later be called art deco.

The shape of a handbag can also help you place it in a particular period. Long tubular bags, referred to as stocking or miser purses, were used from the late 1700s through the 1880s. During the early 1800s small drawstring purses were popular. They were often attached to a woman’s belt. Women continued to wear purses attached to their waists until approximately 1918.

Flat, square purses were first introduced in the 1860s. They were superseded in the 1870s by clasp bags made in a triangular shape. Large, broad, beaded bags with highly decorative designs were popular in the 1880s. Bags made in the 1920s were small, flat, and rectangular.

Leather on metal frames began to compete with various fabrics in the 1880s. Many leather bags were fitted with special compartments for special functions, such as an opera bag that held opera glasses for seeing the stage performers close up and a powder puff for touching up your makeup between acts.

While some handbag frames are sterling, others are silver plate or pot metal. Look for a sterling mark on flat beaded and fabric bags with ornate frames. Avoid purchasing bags that have broken hinges. Handbag frames are difficult and costly to repair. In some instances you will find handbags that have been altered so that they can be reused. For example, when beaded dresses and handbags became fashionable in the 1920s, old beaded bags from the late 19th century were pulled out of storage and their frayed original drawstring tops were often replaced. It also would not have been unusual for a new lining to be put in a bag or for missing beads to be replaced with substitutes. Consider any changes from a bag’s original condition when assessing its value, but they do not necessarily reduce the bag’s desirability.

To keep old bags in their best condition, apply reconditioning cream to leather and gently clean washable items with distilled water and mild soap. Needlework and beadwork damage can be repaired, but it is difficult to restore knit and crotchet work.

When you are not taking that lovely handbag out on a special occasion, consider hanging it on the wall or displaying it in a vitrine or other protective case so you can continue to enjoy it.