Image 1027 – Whiting & Davis (not marked) regular flat mesh child’s purse – with finger ring and bell-shaped drop. Camel charm attached to front of mesh with jump ring. 1 ½ x 3 ½
Ever since ancient Egyptian culture captured the imagination of people the world over it has been a driving force in art and fashion. If you are among those beguiled by the ancient pharaohs perhaps you have contracted a touch of Egyptomania. Certainly the designers at Whiting & Davis and other mesh purse manufacturers were caught up in the craze.
Egyptomania is the abiding interest in the artifacts, architecture and culture of ancient Egypt held by people worldwide. This fascination is also sometimes referred to as Neo-Egyptian or Egyptian Revival. Some people think Egyptomania started in the United States in the 1920s after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. In fact the phenomenon began in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Many of us are aware of Marc Antony and Caesar’s ill-fated obsessions with Egypt. In the early 1800s Napoleon was so infatuated with Egyptian antiquity that he arrived with a team of 150 experts called “savants,” who were charged with studying, cataloging and mapping as many ancient artifacts as they could find. The British arrived in 1882 followed by the Americans.
Luxor Temple founded in 1392 BC. One of the two original obelisks flanking the entrance still stands. The other obelisk is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
It seems that the goal of every country possessed by Egyptomania was to transport one of Egypt’s giant obelisks back home. One of these massive stone monuments with ancient carved hieroglyphs that was originally brought to Rome in 37 AD was moved to its present Vatican City location in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1586. This still left Rome with no less than eight ancient Egyptian obelisks, a testament to the degree of the Roman obsession. In the nineteenth century three ancient Egyptian obelisks, popularly dubbed Cleopatra’s Needles, were moved to Paris, London and New York City. Ironically none of these three monuments has anything to do with Cleopatra. France received her obelisk, known as the Luxor obelisk, in 1833. England finally landed hers in 1877 after nearly losing it at sea, though it wasn’t erected until 1878 after some wrangling over the best venue for it. The New York City needle was gifted by Egypt in 1877 and erected in Central Park in 1881. Egyptomania ran rampant in every location where an obelisk was installed.
R. Blackinton & Co. (N. Attleboro, MA) sterling silver ring mesh purse – frame featuring winged Egyptian figures and lotus blossoms. Stamped inside frame, “B” with sword through it (maker’s mark used until 1912). Frame also marked “Sterling” and “3320” (pattern number). 6 x 5 ¼ (Image courtesy of Jennifer Whitehair)
In early November 1922 British archaeologist Howard Carter was elated when his excavation team found a stairway cut into the bedrock in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor in central Egypt. With his wealthy patron, Earl of Carnarvon, at his side, Carter finally chiseled a small opening in the door of the antechamber of King Tutankhuman’s tomb on November 26th and peered in to discover objects unseen for the past 3,200 years. Inserting a candle into the darkness Carter stared in awe at the sentinel statues guarding the still-sealed door to the burial chamber, as well as funerary objects made of gold and ebony. When asked by Carnarvon if he could see anything Carter replied with the now famous pronouncement, “Yes, wonderful things.”
Whiting & Davis regular flat mesh purse – frame painted on front with scene showing palm trees, pyramids, camels with riders, and desert city. Metal tag stamped with W&D logo attached to inside of frame by spiral wire. 4 x 6 ½ (Image courtesy of Ellen Mansoor Collier)
The news of Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb set off a tidal wave of Egyptomania that swept round the world. From that point through the end of 1926 Egyptian influences pervaded modern culture in the United States to a level not previously experienced. Egyptian motifs became an integral part of the Art Deco movement, a style that dominated decorative arts through the end of the decade and beyond. Clearing and documenting King Tut’s tomb continued through 1932, but Carter took a hiatus from archaeology shortly after opening the sealed burial chamber in February 1923. In 1924 Carter visited the United States giving a series of illustrated lectures that were enthusiastically received. His visit served to stoke the fires of Egyptomania and raise the collective consciousness to new heights.
Whiting & Davis (not marked) regular flat mesh purse – scene showing two camels with riders. 4 7/8 x 7 1/8 (Image courtesy of Ellen Mansoor Collier)
Image 1029 – Whiting & Davis (not marked) regular flat mesh child’s purse – palm tree and minaret design. Checkerboard painted frame. 2 ¼ x 3 ½
In the 1920s Whiting & Davis, unlike its major competitor, Mandalian Mfg., was a company that tracked and capitalized on popular culture. Its leaders were as attuned to what was trending as any Twitter acolyte is today. World’s fairs, soft drinks and characters from children’s books and cartoons were all subjects of designs on W&D mesh purses of the era. The minutest details of Carter’s discoveries were painstakingly reported daily in the press and his lectures were front page news in major cities across the U.S. W&D managers undoubtedly kept abreast of every new development just like people did all over the country and throughout the world.
Whiting & Davis (not marked) regular flat mesh purse – desert scene viewed through an open window. 5 1/8 x 7 (Image courtesy of Jennifer Whitehair)
The New York Times of March 23, 1923 reported that the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. received a flood of applications for the use of Tut-Ankh-Amen as a trademark for objects primarily for “women’s use.” Dress styles were among the many fashion influences shaped by King Tut’s “arrival.” Prints, some of which were exceedingly bright and vivid, portrayed Egyptian scenes replete with patterns of camels, sphinxes and palm trees according to a 1923 Art and Archaeology magazine article.
Harper’s Bazar magazine for February 1927 announcing “the coming spring mode” of fashion on an Egyptian Revival, Art Deco cover.
In addition there were Tiffany scarab brooches and Cartier bracelets with Egyptian figures created in diamonds and rubies. Products from cigarettes to typewriters to soap were also being promoted through references to Egyptian themes. And of course movies about ancient Egypt powered Egyptomania in popular culture and contributed to women’s desire to possess all things Egyptian. Even after interest in Egyptian-themed fashions had waned Hollywood released the Boris Karloff film “The Mummy” (1932) and the Cecil B. DeMille production “Cleopatra” (1934), starring Claudette Colbert. Whiting & Davis supplied mesh for some of the costumes for “Cleopatra,” including one for Colbert’s co-star Henry Wilcoxen who played the role of Marc Antony.
Henry Wilcoxon as Marc Antony and Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille film “Cleopatra.” Marc Antony is wearing W&D mesh.
When attempting to date mesh purses with Egyptian themes it is important to understand that W&D didn’t start selling flat mesh bags with painted designs on the mesh until 1924. The first painted mesh bags featured very basic geometric designs.
Whiting & Davis regular flat mesh purse – camel in an oval vignette painted on goldtone mesh. W&D logo stamped on inside of frame. 4 x 7 (Image courtesy of Ellen Mansoor Collier)
With improvements in stencil design and painting techniques came more elaborate designs on mesh bags produced in a broader array of colors. In 1927 painted Dresden mesh (fine ring mesh) bags were introduced. Art Deco geometrics and Art Nouveau florals were common themes for painted mesh designs, but as technology improved scenic designs portraying landscapes, people, birds, and animals appeared. Notice that all of the W&D flat mesh bags shown in this article are made from the original-style armor mesh rather than Ivorytone mesh that came on the scene around 1930-31. This observation tells us that the bags were probably all made between 1924 and 1930, which makes perfect sense given the enthusiasm for Egyptian design that shaped the fashion industry during a portion of this period of time.
Image 1025 – Whiting & Davis regular flat mesh purse – black on white silhouettes painted on mesh. Metal tag stamped with W&D logo attached to inside of frame by spiral wire. 3 ¾ x 6
Whiting & Davis (not marked) regular flat mesh purse – scene showing two camels with riders. 3 5/8 x 5 5/8 (Image courtesy of Ellen Mansoor Collier)
Certain designs on mesh purses were obviously influenced by Egyptian Revival sentiment in the late 1920s. Images of pyramids, palm trees and camels, some with robed Arab riders, were all found on mesh bags of this period. The lotus blossom design, however, represents a subtle Egyptian theme that some collectors might not perceive as Egyptomania-inspired.
Image 1028 – Whiting & Davis regular flat mesh purse – lotus blossom design on pale green background. W&D logo stamped on inside of both sides of frame. 4 ¼ x 6 ½
Ancient Egyptian priests observed lotus plants retracting below a pond’s surface at night, re-emerging in the morning and blooming during the day. They associated these events with both human resurrection and the daily disappearance and reappearance of the sun. The famous Egyptian “Book of the Dead” included spells to transform a person into a lotus thus allowing for rebirth. The lotus evolved as a very important symbol in the religious art of ancient Egypt and became an iconic design found on a W&D mesh bag made in the late 1920s.
Examples of the use of lotus images in ancient Egyptian art.
Even before Carter’s documentation of the artifacts from King Tut’s tomb was completed in 1932, the fashion world had embraced other interests. However, Whiting & Davis left a legacy of fascinating scenic and figural purses from the preceding years that mesh purse collectors now covet as artifacts of the Art Deco period. And although finding an Egyptian-themed mesh purse doesn’t compare to Carter’s discovery, today’s collectors definitely experience a thrill … and perhaps a little twinge of Egyptomania … upon unearthing one of these “wonderful things.”
Image 1024 – Whiting & Davis (not marked) regular flat mesh purse – desert scene with pyramids. Frame painted on front with scene showing palm trees, pyramids, camels with riders, and desert city. Stamped inside frame, “EL ^ SAH”. 4 ¼ x 7
Image 1026 – Whiting & Davis regular flat mesh purse – scene showing two camels with riders. Stamped inside frame, “EL ^ SAH”. Metal tag stamped with W&D logo attached to inside of frame by spiral wire. 4 x 7
The authors would like to thank Scott Henry for his contributions to this article.
Image 1023 – Whiting & Davis Ivorytone mesh bag with an image of Empress Eugenie of France on the mesh and an unusual stamped brass frame decorated with lions. Inside are two (one on each half of the frame) bowtie-shaped metal tags. Both tags are stamped with the W&D logo and Reg US & CAN and are attached to the frame by the spiral wire. 4 ¼ x 7.
Which Royal is She?
Obviously a royal visage…but whose image is it that appears on this interesting Whiting & Davis mesh bag made in the 1930s? Collectors have long speculated that the image portrays Queen Victoria, or perhaps Princess Mary after whom W&D named a popular ring mesh bag with an envelope-style opening introduced in 1922. Could the purse have been created in 1932 to honor Princess Mary who received the title of Princess Royal on January 1st of that year? Some even speculated that the portrait depicts Marie Antoinette, the well-known French fashionista and party girl of the late eighteenth century. However, in the fashion world, the realm inhabited by W&D, Empress Eugenie of France reigned supreme.
Empress Eugenie was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Interestingly, this official portrait does not depict Eugenie with her natural red hair.
A Beautiful Woman
Born Eugenia Maria de Montijo de Guzman in 1826 in Granada, Spain she became Eugenie Comtesse de Teba. When she married Napoleon III Eugenie was crowned Empress of France (1853-1870). In 1858, at age 32, Empress Eugenie was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. American courtier Lillie Moulton remarked upon seeing Eugenie, “I was completely dazed by her loveliness and beauty. I can’t imagine a more beautiful apparition than she was. Her delicate coloring, the pose of her head, her expressive mouth, her beautiful shoulders and wonderful grace make a perfect ensemble.”
Her Strategic Decision
At the time of Eugenie’s reign common people made their own clothes and the royals and other wealthy people had clothes hand-made for them. Individual dressmakers, always women, created clothing for the wealthy according to the whims of their clients. Eugenie dressed very simply when not attending to public duties, but she astutely recognized that her position as Empress would bring her under intense scrutiny. So for political reasons she strategically decided to embrace her role as an arbiter of fashion in the country already well known for its leadership in the field since the early 1700s. And by extension she brought respect to Napoleon’s court and his newly formed government of the “Second Empire”.
The tiara made for Eugenie was part of a parure including bracelets, a stomacher, and a necklace of six pearl strands. Some of the jewelry is shown in this portrait by Franz Xavier Winterhalter.
Enter Charles Frederick Worth
Into this tableau strode the brash young English designer Charles Frederick Worth. At a court ball held at the imperial Tulleries Palace in 1859 Eugenie was struck by the beauty of a Worth creation worn by a courtier, Princess Pauline von Metternich, wife of the Austrian Ambassador to France. The next day Worth was summoned to meet with Eugenie in her private dressing room that featured revolving mirrors and a lift hidden in the ceiling by which her dresses were delivered from the storage room above. In a short time Worth was supplying the Empress with all of her outfits from court dresses and street clothes to ball gowns and masquerade costumes. Public appearances often required that Eugenie change gowns several times a day, but she never wore the same dress twice, even when attending routine court receptions. Worth, in collusion with Eugenie, proceeded to turn the French fashion world on its ear with his beautiful designs and innovative ideas.
A New Fashion Paradigm
The crinoline, a rather awkward, cage-like form worn under layers of petticoats and milady’s dress, was the accepted standard in all of Europe, including post-revolutionary France. Worth, with the support of the Empress, chipped away at the restrictive dress style, eventually supplanting it with a slimmer silhouette in front and a bustle in back. The result was a new paradigm of fashion and a dramatic shift away from the style that had been in favor in one form or another for decades, culminating in worldwide recognition for Charles Worth. Through aggressive self-promotion and clever marketing the House of Worth became recognized as the epicenter of fashion. In addition to supplying entire wardrobes for wealthy courtiers and aristocrats Worth produced costumes and personal garments for leading performers of the day such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, and Jenny Lind.
Haute Couture Invented
Worth capitalized on his celebrity and in the bargain developed a new means of distribution by agreeing to sell certain of his original designs to foreign buyers with the rights to copy and sell them wherever they chose. Worth also recognized the benefit of labeling his designs to enhance their acceptance in the marketplace. Some of Worth’s most successful designs were sold in the form of ready-to-wear copies in the newly founded department stores of Paris, London, and New York. Worth, by combining his flair for fashion design and entrepreneurship with the support and patronage of Empress Eugenie, had given rise to the modern concept of haute couture! Even after Worth’s death in 1895, The House of Worth flourished into the 1920s and beyond first under the guidance of his two sons and later under his grandson.
An Aspirational Image
So it is no wonder that Whiting & Davis selected Empress Eugenie’s image to grace one of their mesh bags. The Empress was emblematic of the status W&D was striving to achieve in the world of fashion and a figure instantly recognizable by women the world over who sought to follow in her stylish footsteps. Even after Eugenie died in 1920 the House of Worth continued to be a well-known fashion icon that was still closely identified with the Empress’s reputation.
The French crown jewels are on display at the Louvre in Paris. Foreground-left is Eugenie’s diamond and pearl tiara and foreground-right is the Marie-Therese tiara.
The Tale of Three Tiaras
No well dressed empress should be without impressive jewelry and Eugenie made certain that hers measured up to her fashion forward reputation. In Eugenie’s official portrait she is wearing a pearl and diamond tiara, but she is wearing a different diadem in her portrait shown on the Whiting & Davis mesh purse. The key to understanding how Eugenie’s taste in jewelry evolved begs the tale of three tiaras.
Eugenie’s tiara by Lemonnier with 212 pearls and 1,998 diamonds having a total weight of 63.3 carats. It’s good to be Empress!
Empress Eugenie’s Pearl and Diamond Tiara
The tiara commissioned by Napoleon III to celebrate his marriage to Eugenie was crafted by Gabriel Lemonnier in 1853. It embraces 212 pearls and 1,998 diamonds with a total weight of 63.3 carats. However, this tiara cannot be the one shown in W&D’s mesh portrait because it does not have any green stones.
Eugenie’s favorite tiara from among the crown jewels, which was originally made for Marie Antoinette’s daughter, boasts over 1,000 diamonds and 40 emeralds.
Marie-Therese’s Emerald and Diamond Tiara
The tiara Eugenie favored, which was part of the French crown jewels, was originally made for Marie-Therese, the eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This magnificent tiara was designed by cousins Evrard and Frederic Bapst in 1819 and is encrusted with over 1,000 diamonds set in silver and 40 emeralds (79.12 metric carats) set in gold. The Marie-Therese tiara was the property of the French State since it had been made from stones and metals supplied by the state treasury. When Marie-Therese was forced into exile by her husband’s abdication in 1830 she returned the tiara to the treasury. Empress Eugenie donned Marie-Therese’s tiara for occasions of State and other important official functions. So, what was it about the Marie-Therese that made it Eugenie’s favorite? Since fashion had become her forte Eugenie understood that those beautiful green emeralds perfectly complimented her alabaster skin and red hair! However, the celebrated Marie-Therese is not the tiara depicted on Eugenie in W&D’s mesh portrait because it is clearly not of the same shape and design.
This illustration shows the two different forms of the Fontenay diadem. The top view shows the diadem decorated with emeralds and diamonds while the bottom view shows it transformed by large pendant pearls.
A miniature painting produced by Pierre-Paul de Pommayrac in 1861 shows Empress Eugenie wearing the Fontenay diadem. She was very aware of the striking image created by the emeralds in combination with her red hair and fair skin.
The Fontenay Changeable Tiara
So indeed there must be yet another diadem that the Empress wore. But why would Eugenie commission another tiara when she had access to the Marie-Therese? One can speculate that the Marie-Therese must have been extremely heavy and uncomfortable to wear. And, although it enhanced Eugenie’s natural beauty, it did not flatter every ensemble. So in 1858 Eugene Fontenay was commissioned to create a tiara with changeable jewels. The result was a lightweight masterpiece with nine fluerons, or peaks, that could be embellished with sapphires or emeralds. At Eugenie’s whim the gems could be replaced with seventeen large pendant pearls. Or, seventeen diamond pendants could be detached from the “imperial riviere” (necklace) and mounted on the tiara. The tale of three tiaras concludes with the realization that the Fontenay diadem appears in Eugenie’s portrait on the Whiting & Davis mesh bag. Meanwhile, the tale also provides a logical explanation regarding why the tiara would be portrayed with green stones, as well as an interesting insight into the mind of Eugenie.
This likeness of Eugenie could have been the inspiration for her portrait on the purse made by Whiting & Davis in the 1930s.