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    

Authentic Yves Saint Laurent Ysl Belle Du Jour Black Patent Large ClutchAuth Chanel Pink Patent Jumbo 11.81" Double Flap Chian Shoulder Bag Shw G80062Auth Chanel Camelia Cc Logo Enamel Patent Leather Pink Chain Shoulder Bag /7j173Ysl Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Black Patent Leather Alligator Print Tote BagAuthentic Coach Black Patent Leather Inlaid Signature Gallery Tote #17127 VgcCoach Madison Patent Leather Purse And Wallet Purple AubergineAuth Chanel Salmon Pink Patent 10" Double Flap Chain Shoulder Bag Shw C80050 Michael Kors Jet Set Patent Leather Bright Pink Chain Tote Shopper Handbag PurseAuthentic Chanel Jumbo Blue Patent Quilted Leather Double Flap Bag 100% Auth Chanel Reprint Tote Bag Matelasse Line Patent Leather Pink G244Tory Burch Ella Black Patent Leather Logo Nylon Large Shopper Tote Bag Auth Tods Pocket Pashmy Nylon/patent Leather HandbagAuthentic Coach Madison Cobalt Patent Leather Sophia Satchel 15921 EucAuth Louis Vuitton Vernis Patent Pouch Bag Pink France 13268Auth Chanel Shoulder Hand Bag Cosmetic Pouch Vanity Patent Leather Black G111Gucci Shoulder Bag Patent Leather Solid ColourArcadia Dome Satchel Purse Crossbody Italian Patent Leather In Ice Color EucAuth Chanel Reissue Red Patent Leather 9.44 Double Chain Shoulder Bag Ghw C80043Coach Patent Red Handbag100% Authentic Chanel Black Patent Rock Handbag Bag Tote Gold Luxury Chain $2495Coach Gallery Embossed Black Patent Leather Tote F17728Auth Louis Vuitton Reade Pm Monogram Vernis Hand Bag Patent Leather 10075444Gucci Soho Soft Black Patent Leather Cosmetic Case/clutch 338191Kate Spade Patent Leather Tote, Handbag, Purse, BagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 9.84" Single Chain Shoulder Bag Ghw R50055Coach Poppy Patent Leather Glam Tote 15791 (sv/grape/ice)Coach Khaki Brown Signature Canvas Red Patent Leather Button Wristlet Bag Dolce & Gabbana Red Patent Leather Shoulder Chain Charms Bag HandbagLooky Look! Tory Burch Ella Large Logo Tote/nylon Patent Trim PurseDooney & Bourke Patent Leather Satchel Pincaldi Black Embossed Patent Convertible Fold Over Shoulder BagAuth Coach Women Embossed Black Patent Leather Tote Bag Purse With Logo DesignTory Burch Ella Logo Large Tote In Black Nylon With Black Patent Trim Msrp $195Authentic Coach Madison X-large Navy Blue Patent Leather Shoulder Bag 15991 RareMichael Kors Red Patent Leather Jet Set Tote Handbag EucCoach Madison Diagonal Pleated Patent Tote 21300 Punch Pre-owened Msr 428$Gucci Tom Ford Black Patent Leather Paddle Wristlet Wallet Evening BagVersace Purple Patent Leather Quilted Purse Tote Handbag Large BhfoMichael Kors Patent Leather Tote, Nickel/silverMint Coach Madison Black Crinkled Patent Leather Sabrina Satchel 12957 Purse BagAuthentic Chanel White Perforated Patent Leather ToteGucci Soho Disco Soft Patent Pink Fuchsia Leather Crossbody Messenger Bag 308364Auth Louis Vuitton Houston Monogram Vernis Hand Bag Patent Leather 10075083100% Authentic Valentino Garavani Hobo Handbag Purse Bow Tie Patent Leather Beautiful Vontage 1960s 70s Red Blue Gold Vinyl Patent Handbag ModMaxx Patent Leather BagYves Saint Laurent Blue Patent Majorelle SatchelAuthentic Coach Audrey Navy Blue Perforated Patent Leather Cinched Tote 19569Coach Madison Plum Patent Leather Maggie Hobo BagAuthentic Louis Vuitton Vernis Read Mm Hand Tote Bag Purse Patent M91143 5499jsCoach Patent Burgundy/red Purse! Silver Hardwear! Gorgeous! Gucci Red Patent Leather Clutch/ WalletAuth Prada Accessory Pouch Bag Patent Leather Nylon 5e270186#Top Women Charm Crocodile Patent Pu Leather Shoulder Clutch Handbag Tote BlackLarge Medium Womens Ladies Lydc Patent Frame Party Tote Shoulder Handbag L PinkBrighton Muse Patent Croco Leather Grape Hobo Shoulder Bag Purse Purple Coach Black Patent Leather Bag/purseVintage Gucci Patent BagBurberry Black Patent Quilted Coin Purse Wallet With Damaged Key ChainKate Spade Large Black Patent Leather Shoppers Tote Bag