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    

Vtg 50s 1950s Rare Pink Lucite Metallic Glitters Florida Handbag Clutch PurseOriginal 1950's "rialto" Tortoiseshell Bakelite /carved Lucite Beehive Box Bag Late 1950s 1960s Hunter Green Vintage Purse With Tortoise Lucite HandleRare Wilardy Bakelite Era Lucite Accordian Handbag Purse Collectors Piece Mint!!Vtg 1950's Lucite Purse Handbag Tulle & Floral Design Clear Handle Brass Trim Nr Wilardy Champagne Marble Pearl Lucite Box Bakelite Purse Filigree ClaspVintage 1960's Lucite Handbag PurseVintage Retro 1950's Lucite Handbag Purse Basket Weave BlackVintage 1950's Lucite Metal Purse.Vintage Nelson Originals Confetti Lucite Carved Lid Purse - As IsVintage Green And Gold Confetti Strand Lucite PurseStylecraft Miami Vintage Lucite Purse Handbag Pearl Finish Caramel ColorVintage Clear Lucite Purse/ Handbag 1950s Charles S. Kahn Lucite Purse,miami FloridaStunning Vintage Estate Clear Lucite & Gold Tone Purse Or Makeup Case!!!Vintage Rialto Of Ny Lucite Black And Clear Hand BagOh Fab! Vtg 50's Gilli Lucite Purse Pearled W/gold Fleck & Carved Fern Lid Vlv! Vintage Florida Handbag Clear Lucite Purse 1950's Or 1950's Wilardly Lucite Kidney Shaped Purse With Filigree Clasp And HandlesCarved Lucite Purse, 1950's Bail Handle, Steel Grey Body, Clear Bottom Nice1950's "stylecraft" Gold Confett Encased Lucite Butterscotch Bakelite Grab BagVintage 50's Lucite Minaudiere Purse Ivory-white Florida Hand Bag Made In MiamiVintage 1950s Lucite Marbled Champagne Color Purse Clutch Vintage Box Purse Basket Weave Lucite Lid Handle Vintage Lucite Purse Bag Acrylic Mid Century!Vintage White Pearlized Lucite Box Bag Purse Handbag Hong Kong -no Reserve1950's Elsa 2 Tier Lucite/acitate(?) Handbag~pat #d-163037~no ReserveVintage 1950's Clear Lucite Box Purse Bag With Stars Carved Etched Ex Cond LidVintage 50s Lucite Box Purse Carved Clear Lucite & Bronze LaceVintage Lucite Purse Clutch Pearl White With Stones Nice Clasp, Look! ClamshellFabulous Original 50's Hand Painted Signed Vintage Wooden Box Bag~lucite HandleVintage/retro Black Handmade Wicker Purse With Lucite Handle~stunning ConditionVintage Wilardy Pearlized Lucite Purse W/ Compact Lipstick Case Comb Etc...Vintage 1950s Plastic Covered Embroidered Purse Handbag Pearl Lucite HandleVintage 50s 60 Retro Brown Wicker Lucite Handles Trapezoid Purse Handbag BasketVintage Beautiful Lucite Purse Original Bakelite/lucite/tortoiseshell/celluloid Purse Vintage Art DecoVintage Retro Lucite Box Bag Purse Handbag Faux Tortoise Shell Fancy Lid CuteExact Book Piece Tiger Striped Tyrolean Box Lucite Plastic Purse Vintage Anton Pieck Print 3d-shadow- Box Wood Lucite Handle Purse, SignedCaramel Color 50's Lucite PurseVintage 1950s Pearly White Clear Carved Lucite Box Bag W 3 Ball Clasp Vintage Box Purse Handbag Gold Leather W/lucite Handle By Jr Of MiamiBanana Republic Penny Lucite ClutchRare Vintage Purse ~walborg~ Grey Lucite Hammered Copper 1950's Adorable Vintage Mod Lucite Plastic Boxy Purse, Unused, Tortiseshell & CearCoral Seashell Mermaid Silver Seahorse Vintage Lucite Purse By Florida Handbags!Vintage 50s 60 Retro White Wicker Lucite Handles Box Purse Basket HandbagVintage Midcentury Mod Lucite Brown Caramel Marbel Faux Tortoise Box PurseVintage 1960's Wicker And Lucite Handbag Purse Hand Made In British Hong KongVintage Mod Apple Of My I Wooden Box Purse - Black Lucite Handle - Enid CollinsVintage Estate White Clutch Purse Lucite Handle! Carrie City Girl:) Look!Vtg Wicker Purse Lucite Handles Vintage1992 Large Handbag Lucite Plastic Purse - Signed -drops Like Gemstones Vintage 1950s 60s Mod Handbag Lucite Woven Rattan Golden Metal Hardware LinedAnother Y&s Original Small Lucite PurseVintage 1950's Reversible Black To Tapestry Purse Lucite Handle Vintage Plastic Lucite Faux Tortise With Fauceted Lid Handbag, Makeup Case