They are too small to carry a cell phone and PDA, but vintage handbags are large on style and gaining prominence as a collectible. They are finding their way into the fashion scene for a special night out and into the decorating scene as accents in the boudoir. Vintage handbags — beaded, mesh, enameled, Lucite or fabric — show a long line of craftsmanship, all in the name of holding lipstick and compacts.
“But the same inflation that made it impossible to keep mad money in a purse so small is making it difficult to afford some of these gems,” said Daisy Cain, a contributor to Antique Trader magazine.
According to Jeannette Schoolsky of, many bags have tripled in value since she began collecting 15 years ago.
“The bags have really escalated in price,” Schoolsky said. “The beaded bags have gone up way more than the mesh.”
Mesh bags, which came into use before the turn turn of the 19th century, are not difficult for today’s collectors to find because of their durable design and widespread popularity.
The most common types of mesh bags found are ring, armor and beadlite mesh.
Ring mesh consists of small interlocking rings similar to chain mail. Armor mesh bags were made of interconnected flat metal links in the shape of a multiplication sign. Beadlite mesh is similar to armor, but the links have a raised center resembling a bead.
Look for the company’s name stamped inside the frame or a metal tag attached to the inside of the bag.
The Mandalian Manufacturing Co. also produced bags of high interest to collectors.
Look for colorful, enameled armor-mesh bags bearing stylized floral and bird images. Mandalian bags often have hems in the shape of a V or double inverted Vs.
“Although mesh can be pricey, beaded pursed are the bags collectors currently want to grab,” said Cain.
Hand- and machine-made during Victorian times, beaded bags crafted by creative housewives can be one-of-a-kind pieces. However, many were made from common patterns.
Scenery pieces, those with castles or animals and people, are less common than the traditional floral pieces and can carry a higher value.
Another factor that can affect value is the size of the beads used. An uncommon scenery piece constructed of large beads is less attractive to collectors. Bigger is not better when it comes to beaded purses.
“The finer the beadwork, the more intricate the design is going to be, and the more expensive the bag,” Schoolsky said.
If the bag has a nice frame, if the lining is original and intact, if the fringe is complete — all of these characteristics will increase the price of a vintage handbag.
Schoolsky recommends collectors thoroughly investigate any bag before purchase and look for inconsistencies as well as condition issues.
Some bags originally made with drawstrings have been altered. People cut the strings and attached the bag to a metal frame. Such alterations are obviously viewed as detractions.
If the frame is original to the bag, check to see if it is valuable. Some purses will have sterling frames, and some are jeweled.
“It’s like any collectible, it can be very unaffordable,” Schoolsky said.
One area that’s still affordable is purses made of fabric, like black velvet, with sterling frames.
“These classy purses were fairly expensive purchases in the 1940s or 1950s, but they are an affordable collectible today,” said Cain.
A black velvet bag with a silk lining depicting rosettes on a cream background (circa 1930) is valued at $45 in the book Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles.
“Also, the 1950s Lucite bags have become very popular,” noted Cain. “They are affordable but trendy right now and increasing in value.”

All photographs courtesy of Midwest Estate Buyers,

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