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 Perforated Large Tote BagChanel Gray Quilted Patent "in The Business" North-south ToteAuthentic Fendi Black White Leather & Patent Clutch HandbagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 9" Double Flap 2.55 Chain Shoulder Bag Ghw C322Auth Chanel Black Patent Mini Single Chain Shoulder Bag Crossbody Ghw R1743Authentic Louis Vuitton Vernis Patent Wilshire Pm Amarante Tote Handbag Authentic Chanel Crossbody White Black Tweed Patent Leather Chain Bag .Chanel Black Patent Leather Cc Embroidered Chain Handle Tote BagJimmy Choo Lohla Jayne Black Patent Bag. Authentic.Auth Chanel Reissue Purple Patent Leather Chain Shoulder Bag Cross Body Shw U401Genuine Chanel Patent Quilted Forest Green Flap Bag Gold Tone HardwareMint Coach 12839 Black Gallery Tote Bag Patent Leather Purse Satchel Chain LinkMichael Kors Burgandy Signature Monogram Tote Purse Handbag Patent Leather Euc100% Black Gianni Versace Crocodile Patent Leather Medusa Gold Chain Kelly BagTory Burch Patent Leather ToteAuthentic Coach Black Patent Leather Inlaid Op Art Peyton Bag #14516 GucCoach Madison Sophia Plum Patent Leather Bag Excellent Condition Purse Dustbag Mimco Lge Patent/rose Gold Turnlock Bag Rrp$499 Chanel Flap Bag Black Patent Leather With Goldtone Hardware HandbagVintage 1950s 60s Italian Gucci Patent & Genuine Leather & Bamboo Purse Bag100% Authentic Rare Fendi Black & Multicolored Vernice Patent Leather Clutch BagAuthentic Large Chanel Cc Diamond Quilted Patent Leather Vanity HandbagCoach Large Alexandra Charcoal Patent Leather Hobo Tote Carryall Purse Bag 16231Authentic Louis Vuitton Alma Pm Burgundy Amarante Handbag Patent Leather Medium 100% Authentic Louis Vuitton Vernis Spring Street Hand Bag Purse Patent Jv15370Kate Spade Colorblock Patent Leather Large Bag Brown Black Shoulder Bag MintCoach Extra Large Tote Crossbody/handbag Embossed Patent Leather Anya Hindmarch Black Patent & Gold Metallic Leather Shoulder BagBlack Patent Leather Salvatore Ferragamo Purse W/ Dust BagGucci Brown Monogram Canvas & Black Patent Leather Shoulder BagBnwt Authentic Louis Vuitton Limited Edition Mirage Speedy Patent Bag Handbag 30 Coach Ashley Signature Optic Dotted Beige Satchel W/brown Patent #f20027 VgucAuthentic Michael Kors Black Patent Leather Shoulder Bag PurseChanel Black Patent Stretch Spirit Cabas Hobo Shoulder Bag LMint Coach Madison Patent Leather Mini Sophia Satchel Purse Handbag 18595 PlumAnya Hindmarch Black Patent Leather & Blue Stripe Top Handle Tote BagAuth Louis Vuitton Vernis Bedford Hand Bag Purse Beige Patent M91006 Tv15466Red Chanel Patent Leather Classic 2.55 BagChristian Louboutin Black Patent Spike Lady Peep Sz 38 Only The Heels Not Bag100%auth Louis Vuitton Cosmic Blossom Purple Patent Tote Hand Bag Free Ship 327kMimco Tux Lge I-pad Satchel Patent/rose Gold Rrp$249 Authentic Prada Handbag Bag Purse Tote Berry Brown Patent In Great ConditionAuthentic Jimmy Choo Rosalie Satchel- Black Patent - Excellent ConditionTory Burch 'ella' Black Nylon Tote With Black Patent AccentsCoach ~ Fab Black Patent Leather Stitched Signature Carry All Handbag #19215Coach Patent Gray Leather PurseAuthentic Coach Plum Patent Leather E/w Tote #15253 GucCoach Black Patent Leather Zip Quilted Wristlet Wallet ClutchVintage Chanel Yellow Quilted Patent Leather Cc Logo Large Makeup Cosmetic BagChristian Louboutin 38 Black Patent Leather Closed Toe Strappy Box Dust BagCoach Poppy Signature Quilted Patent Leather Tote/handbag Black No. G1176-18676Kate Spade Handbag,"carlisle Street Piper" Patent Leather, Red, Shoulder BagMichael Kors Large Black Tote Patent Leather Shoulder BagMichael Kors Black Patent Leather Large Gold Buckle Flap Top ClutchCoach Rare Audrey Laser Cut Navy Blue Patent Slim Purse Tote #17029 VgucKate Spade Chelsea Park Patent Stripe Nisha Clutch Black/cream Msrp $145Rachel Roy Gray Patent Feather Framed Clutch Handbag Small BhfoCoach Black Leah Embossed Patent Signature Leather Shoulder Tote Bag Purse 14663Coach Poppy Black Patent Leather Crossbody Bag24hrs! Yves Saint Laurent Ysl Ladies Womens Patent Glossy Clutch Bag Purse Black