Patent leather dates to at least 1793, when an Edinburgh periodical reported that “A gentleman of the name of Hand” from Birmingham, England, had patented the process of varnishing leather, making it water resistant and easy to clean. While Hand may have been the first to patent this technique, he was definitely not the first to employ it. In fact, the procedure had long been practiced in Japan, which is why it was known in the West as japanning.

Until Mr. Hand and the other entrepreneurs who followed him came along, japanning had been used primarily to give hard surfaces such as metal a tough, shiny finish. Leather was a more challenging material to work with because it was porous. In addition, the applications for patent leather included trim on horse-drawn carriages, boots and shoes, and eventually handbags, which meant patent leather had to be hard yet pliable.

Although the details of lacquering leather varied from patent to patent, the basic principal was the same. Hand’s patent leather was made with a naturally occurring latex from rubber trees mixed with turpentine; later patent holders would use linseed oil blended with lampblack, or soot. Regardless of the recipe, the leather was typically coated to seal it, dried in either an oven or by the sun, and then burnished with a pumice stone, after which the entire process was repeated three times or more before a final coat of varnish was applied.

At the beginning of the 19th century, U.S. manufacturers imported patent leather from England and Europe. Japanned leather from Birmingham was renowned for its durability, the result of skipping the step of priming the leather before lacquering (as it turned out, the lacquer adhered better to the leather than it did the primer). German patent leather was also considered state of the art. In 1818, a Newark, New Jersey, inventor named Seth Boyden reverse-engineered a sample of the German import (the bill of a hat) and improved upon it, creating a patent-leather industry in the United States.

In his first year of patent-leather production, Boyden sold just $4,521 worth of the material. By 1824, sales were approaching $10 million. Curiously, Boyden never patented his patent leather, even though he’s the person most associated with its proliferation in America.

By the early part of the 20th century, patent leather was poised to take over the handbag industry; it was now more durable and inexpensive to produce than ever. But fashions skewed style in the direction of hand-tooled leathers, exotic skins like alligator and crocodile, and mesh bags, which became favorites of flappers during the 1920s. Edges were harder during the Art Deco era, but for designers of purses and clutches, that was simply a green light to create bags in enameled metal, silver, and even gold.

In fact, patent leather did not achieve wide acclaim in handbag circles until the 1950s, when Coco Chanel used it on her 2.55 quilted-leather purse. That bag was black, but within a few years, patent leather shoulder bags and clutches alike were being produced in a rainbow of colors, including lab-coat white, befitting both the space-age shine and Pop exuberance of the 1960s. Patent leather purses were color coordinated with patent leather boots, skirts, and jackets in the same bold hues, but leather in general was expensive, and patent leather was particularly pricey...

Manufacturers quickly copied the shiny appearance of patent leather by replacing it with inexpensive plastics and vinyl, which spread the patent leather look, if not the actual material itself, throughout the world. Some of these bags actually did the gloss of patent leather one better by appearing to be wet, the result of a final coating of pure polyurethane.

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    

Chanel Black Patent Leather Chocolate Bar Stitch Single Flap Shoulder Clutch BagChanel Vintage Black Quilted Patent Leather & Gold Chain Tassel BagEx! Auth Chanel Black Patent Skin11.81" Jumbo Double Flap Shoulder Bag Shw R1255Auth Chanel Black Patent Leather 14.56" Hand Brief Case Business Bag Ghw R1246Prada "bandoliera" Purple Tessuto Nylon & Patent Leather Cross Body Handbag$1450. Genuine Gucci Italy Purse Patent Leather Dark Brown Tote Handbag WowNo Reserve 100% Chanel Black Quilted Patent Leather Big Cc Logo 13" Boston BagAuth Christian Dior Black Patent Leather Lady Dior 9.44" Cannage Bag Ghw Wt1054Auth Kate Spade Large Sz Black Quilted & Patent Crossbody Shoulder Bag Purse-wowAuth Chanel Quilted Cc Logo Gray Enamel Patent Leather Boston Hand Bag / 2f10Tory Burch Tropical Print Quilted Patent Medallion Flap Bag Coach Soho F19711 Purple Plum Patent Leather Carryall Shoulder Bag Auth Chanel Lambskin Matelasse Quilted Shoulder Bag Ivory White Patent 2.55 Auth Chanel Cc Black Lamb × Patent 16.53" Zip Top Shoulder Tote Bag Ghw R51660Vintage Chanel Black Patent Leather Cc Logo Cosmetic Vanity Tote Bag Nr! Sale! Louis Vuitton Vernis Sarah Wallet Indigo Patent Blue Monogram Lv Clutch 111929Chanel Petit Timeless Tote Bag Ptt Enamel Black Patent Leather A58004 Authentic Vintage Gucci Stamped Patent Leather Wristlet Clutch Bag Gucci Crest Hardware Genuine Gucci Soho Disco Cross Body Black Patent Leather Chain ClutchChanel Auth Vintage Classic Black Patent Leather Cc Flower Bi Fold Wallet PurseBurberry Black Patent Quilted Leather, 'mini Manor' Satchel HandbagChanel Auth Vintage Black Cotton Patent Leather Top Open Medium Shoulder BagTory Burch Purple Patent Leather Zip Trifold Clutch WalletKate Spade Black Bow Patent Leather Messenger Crossbody Shoulder Bag PurseCoach Gallery Embossed "c" Patent Leather Large Tote Dark Teal Blue #17729Kate Spade African Violet Bag! Beautiful! Patent Black Handles! Nylon Nice Size Michael Michael Kors Signature Patent East West Tote WhiteKate Spade Beige Bow Patent Leather Messenger Crossbody Shoulder Bag PurseMichael Kors Large Hamilton Tote In Black Patent LeatherCoach Kristin ~ Rose Pink Patent Leather Hippie Hobo Cross Body Handbag 19299Tory Burch Mini Amanda Crinkle Black Patent Leather Handbag/crossbody-$465Kate Spade Blue Multi Color Patent Leather Novelty Trifold Clutch WalletBurberry Medium Nova Check Tote Bag Black Patent TrimCoach Madison Green Crinkled Patent Leather Sabrina Satchel Shoulder 12957 Euc!!Lauren Ralph Lauren Cherry Red Patent Leather Double Zip Tote Bag PurseCoach Gallery East West Smooth Patent Leather Maroon Bag Euc G0851-f12839Dooney & Bourke Domed Patent Leather Zip Zip In Black Satchel - MediumAuthentic Gucci Black Patent Leather 'bright Bit'clutch Gently Used100% Auth Louis Vuitton Vernis Forsyth Gm Hand Bag Patent Leather M91112 Rb2545mCute Coach Cream Patent Leather C Signature Shoulder Handbag &matching WalletCoach Tribeca Patent Purple Leather Chain Tote Handbag Shoulder Bag *excellent!!Michael Michael Kors Rose Gold Patent Leather Monogram Wristlet Clutch BagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 11.02" Zip Top Strap Shoulder Bag Shw R52114Coach Black & Gray Jacquard With Patent Leather Trim Shoulder Bag Purse F17599$1095.00 Burberry Prorsum Patent Leather Messenger Crossbody Shoulder Bag ClutchKate Spade White Black Zebra Patent Leather Silver Chain Clutch Shoulder BagEuc Coach Signature Patent Black Leather And Canvas Bag!Coach Handbag Black Patent Leather Shoulder W/tan Handles Turnlock Pocket F14663Coach Handbag Black Patent Leather Shoulder Bag ToteCoach Black Patent Leather Laced Gallery Shoulder Tote Bag Purse 11500Coach Signature C Stitched Patent Leather Framed Kisslock Tote, Shopper Bag Coach Gray Patent Leather Perforated Stitch Silver Buckle Shoulder Bag 14118Authentic Chanel Classic Quilted Patent Ritz Black Flap Chain Shoulder 3 BagAuthentic Kate Spade Striped Pammy Patent Leather Tote Bag, Black & Cream PurseCoach Hobo Bag Red Patent Leather Anya Hindmarch Black Patent Leather Mini Tote Handbag Bn 024Auth Louis Vuitton Vernis Read Pm Hand Tote Bag Red Patent Purse M91088 Y9829jsCoach Patent Leather Peach Purse/pocketbook/handbag&wallet&checkbook Cover MintCoach Bag Signature Black Embossed Patent Leather Purse Shoulder Tote F16564Mint!~coach Madison Maggie Cobalt Blue Crinkled Patent Leathr Hobo Shoulder18900