Betty Boop Mesh Purses


Made of pen and ink. She can win you with a wink. Wait `til you… get a view… of sweet Betty! (Lyrics from the Betty Boop cartoon series theme song.)

Can you name the favorite flappers of moviegoers in the 1930s? Silver screen devotees certainly flocked to see Marion Davies, Louise Brooks and Colleen Moore. However, the cartoon character, Betty Boop, was an even bigger box office draw than many of the flesh and blood actors. She starred in a total of 111 films between 1930 and 1939! And she was so popular that her likeness became one of the most frequently used images in mass merchandising during the Depression era. Betty’s image was licensed for a wide range of products including nail polish, cigarette cases, dolls, playing cards, and metal mesh purses.

Are you among the fortunate collectors who own a Betty Boop mesh purse? Apparently relatively few of these bags were made and even fewer remain after eighty-odd years. All of the circumstances that contributed to the scarcity of these purses today might never be known. However, one factor that undoubtedly had a major impact is the controversy that surrounded and shortened Betty’s cinematic career.

Betty Boop made her debut in Max Fleischer’s 1930 cartoon Dizzy Dishes, the sixth episode of his Talkartoon series produced by Fleischer Studios and released by Paramount Pictures. She also appeared in print in the comic section of a few newspapers starting in July 1934, but the comic strip never achieved the popularity of her cartoons. The daily strip ended after less than a year and the Sunday strip lasted only until November 1937.


Helen Kane

Originally drawn as a humanlike French poodle caricature of singer Helen Kane, Fleischer’s character was changed to a completely human form in 1932. Betty, her floppy poodle ears morphing into hoop earrings and her black poodle nose becoming a tiny, turned-up button nose, was introduced as a Jazz Age flapper in the cartoon Any Rags. Black curls framed Betty’s face in all of her cartoons except Poor Cinderella (1934), in which she became a redhead for her only color film. She started out as a supporting character in ten cartoons and was portrayed as a scatter-brained flapper with a heart of gold. In stand-alone cartoons, she was billed under other names, including “Nan McGrew,” taken from the 1930 Helen Kane film Dangerous Nan McGrew, and was often cast as a girlfriend to Bimbo, the prevailing studio star at the time.


Bimbo 1930 to 1933

Bimbo was a purely fictional cartoon dog that appeared in Fleischer productions from 1930 through 1933. He was originally named Fitz in the Out of the Inkwell series, but later became the star of Fleischer’s Talkartoons series, making his first appearance as Bimbo in Hot Dog (1930). Bimbo was demoted to a supporting role when Betty Boop supplanted him as the most popular character in the Fleischer troupe. The Talkartoons series was renamed the Betty Boop series in 1932 beginning with Stopping the Show. Bimbo was banished from Betty’s series by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) Production Code when it was eventually decided that a dog with a human girlfriend was improper and violated the censorship rules that had been formally adopted in 1930.


Betty Boop & Bimbo Circa 1932-33

Margie Hines was the first voice actress to speak for Betty. A few other actresses followed Hines until Fleischer discovered vaudeville performer Mae Questel in 1931. Questel initially shared the voicing role for Betty with other artists, but soon took it over exclusively. Remarkably versatile and talented, Questel was also the voice of Olive Oyl for twenty years. She even voiced Popeye in a few cartoons, as well as Casper and Little Audrey.


Mae Questel, the voice of Betty, with Max Fleischer

Betty’s signature phrase, “Boop-Oop-a-Doop,” has no meaning out of context. It was inspired by “scat,” a style of jazz singing that was popular during the 1920s and ‘30s. Improvisational scat singers strung together groups of words and alliterative sounds that were intentionally nonsensical. Cab Calloway recorded a tune actually named The Scat Song in 1932 that contains the following lyrics:

When your sweetie tells you, everything’ll be okay; Just skeep-beep de bop-bop beep bop bo-dope skeetle-at-de-op-de-day!

If you feel like shoutin’, advertise it just this way: And skeep-beep de bop-bop beep bop bo-dope skeetle-at-de-op-de day!

Although the invented phrases are meaningless, the way Calloway employs them imparts meaning.


Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away

An example of scat can be found in Betty’s 1932 film Boop-Oop-a-Doop, which takes place in a circus. Upon returning to the wardrobe tent after her tightrope act Betty finds herself fighting off the ringmaster’s unwanted advances. Koko the clown hears Betty struggling and arrives just in time to rescue her. When Koko asks if Betty survived unscathed, she answers, “He couldn’t take my Boop-Oop-a-Doop away!”

April 1932 Photoplay Magazine Article 

Helen Kane filed a $250,000 infringement lawsuit against Max Fleischer and Paramount in 1932. Her suit charged that “deliberate caricature” perpetrated by the defendants had produced “unfair competition,” exploiting both her singing style and appearance. Kane had been a star of stage, recordings and films for Paramount and had risen to fame in the late 1920s as “The Boop-Oop-a-Doop Girl,” but by 1931 her career was flagging. As Kane’s career waned Paramount promoted the development of Betty Boop more vigorously. The case was finally heard in New York in 1934. Fleischer stated in court that Betty Boop was purely a product of his imagination, and other evidence proved that Kane’s “look” was not as distinctive as she claimed. Both Kane and the Betty Boop character bore a close resemblance to Paramount star Clara Bow. Even more crucial to the final verdict was the rejection of Kane’s claim regarding the uniqueness of her singing style. It was revealed that a few years earlier Kane had attended a performance by Baby Esther, an African American singer that employed a similar vocal style. A Baby Esther test film was also introduced into evidence featuring the singer performing in the “Jazz Baby” style. New York Supreme Court Justice Edward J. McGoldrick ruled against Kane, concluding that she had not originated the “baby” style of singing and that she had failed to prove that her physical appearance was unique.

Clara Bow


Baby Esther

Betty Boop’s early cartoons were aimed at adults and are considered her best due to her combination of girlishness, maturity and innocent sexuality. She was the flapper personified to many motion picture fans. However, the National Legion of Decency and the Production Code of 1934, commonly known as the Hays Code, significantly impacted the content of her films. The Hays Code imposed detailed restrictions on the type of content films could reference with sexual innuendo, and its implementation put an end to flouting of the largely unenforced rules adopted in 1930. This turn of events had a profoundly negative effect on the Betty Boop cartoons.

Joseph Breen, the new head film censor in 1934, lodged numerous complaints about Betty’s cartoons. Breen ordered the removal of the risqué introduction that started each cartoon because Betty’s flirty winks and swiveling hips were regarded as “suggestive of immorality.” No longer an uninhibited flapper often pursued by lecherous men, Betty was now portrayed as a schoolteacher, secretary or babysitter who usually wore a modest dress with an almost puritanical hemline. There was a gradual decrease in the number of curls in her hair, and her gold bracelets and hoop earrings disappeared. Even her personality changed as she became more mature and less frivolous. To replace the objectionable Bimbo, Betty was furnished with a boyfriend, Freddie, who was introduced in She Wronged Him Right (1934). In an effort to make her more family-friendly Betty became the owner of a pet puppy named Pudgy that was first seen in Betty Boop’s Little Pal (1934). In 1935 a further effort to make her more appealing to a younger audience was attempted with the addition of Grampy, an eccentric inventor.


Betty Boop’s Evolution: Poodle >> Pin-up >> Prim & Proper

All of these ploys to charm adolescent viewers resulted in Betty’s post-Hays Code cartoons being much more subdued than her earlier films. Unfortunately, Betty’s transformation contributed substantially to the decline of the series. Some of the falloff was also due to cutting back Betty’s role in the cartoons in favor of her co-stars. A similar issue developed during the same period at the Walt Disney Studios with Mickey Mouse, who was becoming overshadowed by the popularity of his co-stars Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto.


Betty Boop and Henry 1935 – Post Hays Code 

Fleischer Studios artists worked diligently to keep Betty’s cartoons relevant to youngsters and balance out her frequent musical scenes by teaming her with popular comic strip characters such as The Little King and Henry. They also tried to create a spin-off series in 1933 by pairing her with Popeye, Fleischer’s most successful character. However, none of these combinations proved popular enough for Betty’s series to regain its former status.

In the late 1930s the swing era succeeded the Jazz Age that Betty originally represented. Fleischer Studios made a bid to develop a swing-style character in the 1938 cartoon Betty Boop and Sally Swing, but the film was not a box-office success. Despite a few more futile attempts to transform Betty into a swing era star Flesicher’s efforts couldn’t overcome the changes wrought by controversy. In her last appearance, Rhythm on the Reservation (1939), Betty drives a convertible labeled “Betty Boop’s Swing Band” onto a Native American reservation, where she introduces swing music and even creates a “Swinging Sioux Band.” The Betty Boop cartoon series officially ended in 1939 with the release of Yip Yip Yippy, a film in which Betty didn’t actually appear.

Betty Boop Mesh Purse Circa 1933-34

There are two known varieties of Betty Boop mesh purses, and perhaps other versions that have not yet surfaced. The first shows just an image of raven-haired Betty standing, hands on hips, in a pre-Hays Code red dress inside an oval vignette with her name in red letters below. The second purse shows Betty in the same red dress, but with red hair and bent over at the waist, hands on her knees, watching Bimbo juggling three balls. Bimbo sports a red shirt, black pants and oversized shoes. Betty and Bimbo are framed by a winding black line embellished with loops, curlicues and flourishes. Below the two images “Betty Boop” is written in upper case block letters, just as on the first purse. However, on the first purse her first and last names are both on the same line. On the second purse the word “Betty” is positioned above and mostly to the left of “Boop.”

Image 1031 – Betty Boop & Bimbo Mesh Purse – W&D bowtie trademark and COP D.S. Fleischer Studios Inc. stamped on frame; Rowan (Ivorytone) Mesh; 3” x 4-1/2”

Otherwise both purses share many of the same characteristics. The background color of the mesh on both purses is cream and the frame is painted to match. The respective images are painted on both sides of the purses. They are both made with Rowan (Ivorytone) mesh cut on the bias. Both are stamped inside the frame with the Whiting & Davis bowtie logo and “COP DS Fleischer Studios Inc.” Each purse is approximately 4-1/2” long on a 3” frame with a short oval-link-chain handle.


W&D Logo and Fleischer Copyright Stamped Inside the Frame

One clue to determining the approximate manufacturing date of the Betty Boop mesh purses is knowing the type of mesh used to make them. The inventor of Rowan (Ivorytone) mesh, Harry B. Rowan, filed an application for a design patent for his new flat mesh with rounded corners in June 1930, which resulted in a patent award in March 1931. Rowan mesh eventually became the standard type of mesh for all Whiting & Davis flat mesh bags and it continued as the standard for many years. This information helps by defining the earliest possible date of manufacture, but does nothing to aid in establishing the latest possible date.

Little is known about licensing agreements for Betty Boop commercial products in the 1930s. Neither Whiting & Davis nor Fleischer Studios have records dating back that far. However, in a November 1934 copyright infringement suit brought by Fleischer a Mr. Joseph P. Kallus was named as the licensee that was granted exclusive rights to make and distribute toys and dolls. On a date after July 1931 not specified in the suit, Fleischer Art Service, owner of the Betty Boop copyright, sold the exclusive rights to Mr. Kallus for a period of five years. Kallus became involved with doll and toy manufacturing while still an art student in New York. He worked for a series of doll makers until 1922 when he founded his own business, the Cameo Doll Company of New York.  In 1933 he moved the company to Port Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Apparently it was Mr. Kallus’s company that contracted with Whiting & Davis to manufacture the Betty Boop purses. So we can surmise from these facts that the bags must have been made after 1931 and before 1939, but in order to narrow down the manufacturing period we must study Betty’s cartoons for additional evidence.

Assuming that Betty’s images on the mesh purses closely mirror her cartoon history, identifying the approximate dates the purses were produced becomes clearer. To recap…

  • Betty’s character in her familiar human form debuted in 1932.
  • Bimbo appeared in Fleischer cartoons from 1930 to 1933.
  • The Hays Code went into effect in July 1934.
  • Betty’s style of dress on the purses is pre-Hays code.
  • Redheaded Betty was featured only in Poor Cinderella, released in August 1934.
  • Although Betty’s cartoons were toned down soon after adoption of the Hays code, changes to the length, neckline and style of her dress weren’t completed until October 1934.


Cinderella 1934 – Betty as a Redhead

Keeping all of these facts in mind, we can conclude that the black-haired Betty Boop purse could have been made anytime from 1930 to September of 1934, but most likely was made between late 1933 and the middle of 1934. The red-haired Betty Boop and Bimbo mesh purse was probably made in the Hays Code transition period around July 1934 to leverage the anticipated popularity of the one and only Betty Boop color cartoon.

Even though a direct link cannot be made, no doubt certain consequences of the Great Depression stifled sales of Betty Boop mesh purses. Unemployment skyrocketed from 3.2% to 25% between 1928 and 1933 and during the same period cinema attendance plummeted by 56%. In 1933 Paramount, and its Paramount–Publix chain of 1,500 movie theaters, filed for bankruptcy and began a financial reorganization. Dramatic changes to family life ensued as young couples, worried about their finances, put off having children. The number of children born to women aged 15 to 44 declined by almost 20% from 1928 to 1935.

A more distinct correlation can be made, however, between low sales and Betty’s fall from grace in the film industry. From the time the Hays Code was installed Betty’s popularity suffered a rapid decline. The timing could not have been worse for the manufacturer and distributor of the Betty Boop mesh purses. Both Whiting & Davis and Cameo must have been dismayed by the effect strict enforcement of the Hays Code had on interest in their cute child’s purse. After Betty’s morality had been called into question how many parents do you suppose would have rushed out to buy their daughter a Betty Boop mesh purse? Although at the height of her fame Betty’s films drew as many moviegoers to the box office as rivals Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the less controversial characters in tamer cartoons enjoyed much longer periods at the pinnacle of popular culture. Not surprisingly, more of the mesh purses depicting these characters are available to collectors today.

And because Betty Boop mesh purses are child’s purses, and young ladies were frequently exuberant when playing with their possessions, it is extremely difficult to find a surviving example in top condition. Today’s purse collectors compete with each other, but also with cartoon character collectors and Betty Boop enthusiasts for the elusive prize, all of which might move the lucky individual who finds one of these rare purses to excitedly exclaim…Boop-Oop-a-Doop!


Egyptomania in Mesh

13_Camel_Charm_WebImage 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.