Though plastics today are typically associated with cheap, low-integrity products, during the boom years following World War II, recently developed thermoplastics carried the cachet of glitz and glamour. In the worlds of industrial and interior design, modern materials and geometric forms were all the rage. That trend spilled over to fashion, whose designers soon turned to sturdy plastics like Lucite to create fashion-forward handbags and purses.

Created in 1931 by the American chemical company DuPont, Lucite is a durable acrylic material made from polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA. Lucite became a successful replacement for earlier plastics like Bakelite and Catalin because of its low density and high strength. Though used primarily in military applications during World War II, Lucite was adapted for use in jewelry and fashion accessories during the late 1940s.

In the late 1940s, various New York handbag companies hopped on the plastics bandwagon and released lines of Lucite purses, including Llewelyn, Maxim, Rialto, Shoreham, Tyrolean, Venzer, Charles Foster, Arnold Originals, and Gilli Originals. By 1950, Miami Beach had become the happening spot for wealthy American vacationers; its fun-in-the-sun, holiday appeal made it the perfect spot to sell Lucite bags. Many Florida-based manufacturers sprung up in the early '50s, like Myles Originals, Charles S. Kahn, Bags By Benné, Patricia of Miami, Florida Handbags, and Wiesner.

The Lucite carryalls made by these manufacturers were typically unlined and sold in solid or transparent hues. More ostentatious bags came in imitation mother of pearl and the trendy “Shell,” a mock-tortoise pattern made from caramel colored acetate. The fashions ranged from flashy, like Wiesner’s rhinestone studded “birdcage” bags with matching accessories, to regal, as with Llewellyn’s blue beaded bag inspired by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, with gold-plating and Lucite “Shell” trim.

Purses were also formed from Lucite laminates filled with glitter, raffia, ribbons, silk flowers, and even real butterflies, while their exteriors were embellished with rhinestones, beads, precious metals, and faux pearls. Other clutches and purses featured inlaid embroidery work, seashell collages, fabric “curtains,” or hand-painted detailing. However, some of the most stunning Lucite bags were simply designed to emphasize the extraordinary clean lines of their magical plastic materials, like the bright blue “Covered Wagon” style made by Myles Originals or the Kelly green “convertible clutch” designed by Patricia of Miami. Many handbags also included matching compacts or cigarette cases, often mounted directly onto their lids like Myles Originals’ “3-D” style from 1953, while others like Wilardy’s triple-decker “accordion” style resembled a tiered jewelry box dangling from a woman’s arm.

In fact, jewelry boxes were an inspiration to Wilardy’s founder, Will Hardy, who had originally begun incorporating Lucite parts into handbag designs for his father’s company to replace materials like leather and metals, which were restricted by the U.S. government during World War II. After he designed a Lucite jewelry box for buyers at Saks Fifth Avenue, they recommended adding a strap to turn the box into a handbag. This led to Hardy’s entry into the world of plastic purses, and by 1951, the Wilardy business was producing 64 styles of Lucite bags in 14 different colors.

The company’s wares were soon carried by movie stars and celebrities across the globe, and in 1954, Wilardy was given a “Quality, Fashion & Design” award from the International F...

Other makers adopted ivory-carving traditions to create detailed, hand-sculpted pieces with deep, three-dimensional patterns. Llewellyn Bley’s experience with ivory helped him to make some of the most elaborately-styled designs for his Llewelyn handbag line. Though made of plastic, these bags were hardly cheap. A Llewelyn bag could run as high as $65 in the early 1950s, which was nearly a month’s rent in New York. Bley’s “Beehive” bag was one of the company’s most popular styles, shaped in concentric Lucite circles and topped with a sculpted lid featuring brass bees.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking form of Lucite purses were those made from perfectly clear plastic, which violated the handbag’s long tradition as a secret sanctum for personal belongings. Often filled with a scarf to hide their contents and match a woman’s outfit, these transparent bags imbued their owners with a strikingly modern, brash style. Nonetheless, by the mid-60s, changing fashions rendered Lucite handbags passé and most companies stopped producing them entirely.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University is the place to learn about handbag makers from Adrian's, which made Bakelite bags, to Whiting … [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Magnificent Original 1950's "myles" Tortoiseshell Bakelite Carved Lucite Box BagFabulous "majestic" 1950's Clear Lucite Chrome Metal Grab Bag~great ConditionExtremely Rare 1940's Wilardy Lucite Purse Chiseled Block Of Ice - Very Unique!Lucite Glitter Handbags Of Miami Purse, Charles S. Kahn Designed, Excellent CondRare Pr. Vintage Lucite Clutch Purses - Rialto & Wilardy - Midcentry Modern** Vtg 1950's Mid Century * Lucite Black Confetti Compact Purse * Cigarette CaseVintage 50's Basket Purse Lucite WickerVintage Rialto Ny Lucite Acrylic Clear Marblized White Plastic Box Purse HandbagVintage Lucite Purse With RhinestonesVintage 1950's 'florida Handbags' Lucite Purse; Clear/gold Confetti - ExcellentVintage Lucite See Thru 1940's Era Clutch With Diamelle AccentsVintage 1950s Unique Llewellyn Pearlized Lucite PurseVintage Marbled Mocha Lucite & Copper Box Purse Cocktail Evening Bag Clean!Vintage Retangular Shape**white Pearlized**carved Lucite Lid Purse Beautiful !Vintage Lucite Purse Handbag By Majestic - Cylinder Confetti MetallicVtg 60s Wicker Straw Butterscotch Lucite Hand Bag Purse Woven Rattan Hong Kong1960's Clear Carved Lucite Clutch Purse With Rhinestones True VintageVintage 50's Wilardy Grey Lucite Marbleized Purse 9 1/2x4 1/4Women's Vintage Circa 1950s Lucite Plastic Fashion Purse Charles Kahn MiamiVintage Dorset Rex Metal Weaved & Lucite Purse/handbagAs Is Vtg Clear Plastic Lucite Cylindrical Box Purse For Parts Or StagingVintage Bracelet Coin Purse Charm Turquoise Lucite Gold Tone 3265Vintage Green And Gold Confetti Strand Lucite PurseTyrolean Vintage 50s Rare Blue Lucite Purse Handbag, Thick Plastic!Vintage 1950's Clear Lucite And Spanish Lace Goldtone Purse HandbagVintage Lucite Style PurseVintage 1950's Brass & Carved Clear Lucite Purse / HandbagVintage 1950's Butterscotch Tortoise Lucite Plastic Purse / HandbagVintage Lucite And Metal Purse With Glitter And Swing Handle Marked Wm * NrBeautiful Joyce Francis Hand-painted And Carved Lucite HandbagVintage Mirror Box Purse With Lucite HandleVintage Woven Metal And Lucite Handbag By Dorset Rex Fifth Avenue Fabulous Majestic 1950's Lucite W/goldlace Box Purse Vtg 60s Black Wicker Purse Poodle Dog Seashell Lucite Princess Charming By AtlasLadies Purse Bag Pearlized Lucite Plastic Unique White Color BeautifulVintage 1960's Decoupage Box Purse Handbag ~ Flowers & Butterflies Lucite HandleVintage Wicker Poodle Purse Handbag With Lucite HandlesBook Piece -- Plastic Lucite Llewellyn Gray Marbled Clutch Purse HandbagVintage Origina Rialto Purse Handbag Clear Plastic Lucite Handles Art DecoVintage Dorset Rex Metal Woven Brass & Lucite PurseAmazing Vintage Florida Of Miami Crushed Pearl Lucite And Jacquard HandbagVintage Purse With Silk Flowers And Lucite Handle-june Cleaver!Vintage Lot Of Jewelry With Lucite PurseVintage Needlepointe/ Hand Painted Lucite Envelope Handbag By Famous Moon BagsVintage Caramel Lucite Purse With Gold-tone HardwareVintage Mid Century Clear . Plastic Lucite Acrylic Bakelite Clutch Purse W Vintage Lucite Purse W/ Marblized Bottom And Clear TopLot 3 Vintage Handbag Purse Macrame Clutch Lucite Clasp Wicker Mesh Plastic Vintage Handbag Purse Hong Kong 1960's Lucite Plastic Faceted Crystal Beads Euc Vintage Clear Lucite Purse Evening Fashion Handbag With Rhinestone ClaspAngela Frascone ~ San Francisco Handbag ~ Exotic Flowers Design ~ Lucite Plastic