A 30-year odyssey started with a boyfriend trying to impress his girl.
It was in the mid-1970s when Dennis LaMothe was walking with his then-girlfriend, Terri, past a Merle Norman window display. Inside was a shimmering gold top, sleek and sexy and fashioned from delicately bound metal mesh.
“He saw the top and thought it was great,” Terri said. “He went in and bought it without looking at the price. It was $250. It, of course, got a lot of attention … so I ended up wearing it on the cruise on our honeymoon.”
During the cruise, the newlyweds dined and gambled. In a boutique on the ship, the two discovered more gold mesh — all made by a Massachusetts firm named Whiting & Davis. “I won enough money on the cruise to pay for the whole thing, so I bought a purse and belt to match the gold top,” she said.
So began a 30-year quest to accumulate and research the history behind the dazzling metal mesh used in purses, clothing and accessories. The result was a lifetime of memories and a collection that’s the largest to ever come to market. On Dec. 16, Collect.com Auctions will sell The Dennis & Terri LaMothe Collection featuring more than 300 lots of Whiting & Davis vintage purses, couture, jewelry and celebrity memorabilia. Internet bidding will be available through Collect.com/Auctions.
|The collection features more than 250 individual lots of vintage Whiting & Davis and Mandalian Co. handbags, some of which are pictured here. The purses represent the best of 20th-century style.|
“This collection is just stunning in so many ways,” said Steve Bloedow, director of Collect.com Auctions. “The quality, the quantity, the variety — you just don’t find collections like this. With so many lots available during the online bidding, there is something for every collector — from jewelry to fashion, even a glove owned by Cher. The entire collection will impress anyone who views the lots.”
Collect.com Auctions is owned by F+W Media, publishers of Antique Trader.
The LaMothes are considered two of the most important collectors and foremost experts on Whiting & Davis Co., the firm known for popularizing and mass marketing the use of metal mesh as a style accoutrement for more than 100 years. Aided by a team of up to 20 different antiques pickers, the LaMonthes spent 25 years scouring the United States for top-quality examples, historical data and rare variants. The result is a collection like none other that’s been to market.
“We did all kinds of crazy things,” Dennis said. “We started buying collections here and there — amassing them. We say our kids lived in a van for 10 years because we were at auctions three, four, five times a week.”
Shortly after they were married, the couple shopped flea markets around their Florida home to find more of the sultry metal mesh. Soon they made connections with dealers who specialized in Whiting & Davis purses. The two did whatever was needed to own the best. If money was tight, the LaMothes entered contracts agreeing to purchase large collections over time.
“We found 75 purses in the Pinellas Antique Mall and absolutely fell in love,” Terri said. “We tracked down the owner, James Burkel, and within an hour of talking we agreed to buy them all. We paid for them as we could afford them — on time.”
Dennis’ first purse features Mickey Mouse in stunning mesh metal. Terri found it at a Tampa flea market in the mid-1980s, buried in a glass showcase. Other rarities followed, such as the highly sought-after purses depicting Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable or commemorating the 1934 World’s Fair.
“Our one rule: they had to be in the best condition we could afford,” Terri said. “We didn’t buy just to buy. We bought the very best and traded up.”
One rare piece to be sold is a Whiting & Davis mesh glove worn by Cher. The piece comes with a certificate of authenticity from the Walt Disney Co. An iconic piece of celebrity memorabilia, Cher’s glove was an important element incorporated into her outrageous costumes worn in the late 1980s, a time when her career produced No. 1 hits such as “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
The glove is just one of the auction’s several pieces of vintage fashion that feature Whiting & Davis’ mesh. Others include a dazzling tuxedo; ladies’ tops in shimmering blue mesh; gold neckties; belts and bracelets.
When the two couldn’t buy, they were learning, reading and sharing as much information as possible with other collectors. Their thirst for knowledge brought them to the company’s headquarters in Plainville, Mass., and even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office at the Smithsonian Institution.
The LaMothe’s unquenchable dedication even reached the Whiting & Davis Co. itself. The LaMothes were called to provide a museum exhibit in partnership with a Massachusetts historical society for Whiting & Davis’ 110th anniversary in 1986. The occasion also marked the launch of a line of mesh handbags in an effort to revive the look and reward collectors.
“They called us because we had more handbags than they did,” Terri said. “We had the rare handles that weren’t found because they melted the molds when they were done.”
The first purses created by Whiting & Davis were all assembled by hand. It wasn’t until 1906 the firm was using machines to craft the handbags.
During the exhibit, the LaMothes interviewed former plant workers. During World War II, the family-owned plant created jobs by slashing the price of the purses during a promotion for Home Journal magazine. Subscribers could buy a dainty mesh coin purse for 25 cents. The company hired two ladies in their homes to answer all the replies they received. Plant employees were offered “homework” — the opportunity to assemble bags by hand at night. All family members joined in, and the employees were given a small bonus per bag.
“That family kept every family employed in that small town. No one was laid off. It became a true family business,” Terri said.
The LaMothes gained unprecedented access to privately held collections most didn’t know existed. “They are an art form to me,” Dennis said. “Like a Picasso or a Dali, I get just as much pleasure looking at the purses and having a large display as a I do a fine painting on my wall.”
Collect.com Auction’s sale of the Dennis & Terri LaMothe Collection begins Nov. 23; bidding closes Dec. 16. Internet bidding will be available through Collect.com/Auctions. Bidders must pre-register to place a bid. This can be done on the Collect.com Auction Web site or by phone at 888-463-3063. Bids are accepted through the Web site, fax, phone and e-mail. The sale has a 17 percent buyer’s premium.
For more information on this and upcoming Collect.com Auctions, visit Collect.com/Auctions, or call 888-463-3063.
Launched in 1876 in Plainville, Mass., the Whiting & Davis Company was originally founded as a jewelry company called the Wade-Davis Company, named after its founders, William H. Wade and Edward P. Davis. Charles A. Whiting joined the firm in 1880 and became partner in 1896 after having introduced a line of mesh handbags to the company’s production. It is these bags that secured the company’s place in the annals of 20th-century fashion for more than 100 years.
The unique interlocking mesh provided an evocative new texture that was seen as cutting-edge and elegant. The first production runs were hand linked. It was standard practice for the company to give its workers “homework” by allowing them to take materials home so the whole family could make bags at night. Employees were then paid for their quotas.
By 1910 the company used machines to produce the mesh, which then pushed the company’s handbags onto the national stage. Styles ranged from mixing and matching different-colored mesh to employing enamel paints to create various scenes and designs on the metal itself. Popular looks include Art Deco style, geometric and zigzag patterns in dazzling pearlized enamel or sterling silver. The bags’ popularity encouraged smaller competitors, such as the Mandalian Mfg. Co.; however, their efforts were eclipsed by Whiting & Davis, allowing the firm to lock in the market and keep expanding.
Whiting & Davis starting buying its suppliers, taking ownership of the fetching handles, clasps and built-in compacts. The flexibility allowed the company to create portraits in the mesh of celebrities and screen stars, including Mickey Mouse, Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin.
By the 1950s, the company was producing clothing and an extensive line of costume jewelry. Jane Russell wore a mesh dress for the 1951 film “Macao.”
As tastes changed, the company introduced new clothing styles, jewelry and accessories and the Heritage line of handbags in the 1980s to revive the meshstyle look. The company changed hands in the 1990s, and the Whiting & Davis corporate name survives. However, the company now bills itself as a major supplier of wholesale mesh (chain mail) material for designers and industrial engineers.
Photos courtesy Collect.com Auctions.
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