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    

Ysl Yves Saint Laurent Large Patent Leather Clutch Handbag Purse$175 Euc Tory Burch Mini Ella Beige Nylon & Patent Leather Tote Shoulder BagChanel Classic Patent Camellia Bag 100% Authentic Nr100% Authentic Chanel Patent Leather Cosmetic Make Up BagPrada Tan Suede & Red Patent Leather Velcro Flap BagMichael Michael Kors 'jet Set' Python Embossed Patent ToteMichael Kors Handbag, Jet Set Large Tote Black Patent PythonCoach Crimson Red Ashley Patent Leather Carryall/purse W/matching Wallet 20464Brahmin Patent Leather Moc Croc Embossed Large Shoulder Bag Tote PurseGucci *stained & Soiled* Cream Patent Leather Pleated Tote Made In Italy Bag :^(Rare Dooney & Bourke Handbag Purple Patent Leather Shopper Purse Satchel Totebag100% Auth Chanel Black Quilted Patent Leather Gold Chain 11" Clutch/shoulder BagCoach Patent Leather Carryall Tote Satchel Plum Purple Handbag Soho100% Auth. Gucci Soho Soft Patent Leather Clutch In Light PinkAuth Louis Vuitton Sutton Vernis Hand Bag Purple Patent Leather Spain Jv04690Tory Burch Straw 'saddle Jane Tote' In Natural/pink Patent Michael Kors Jet Set Monogram Mirror Patent Leather Mk Logo Signature Tote BagAuthentic Coach Madison Blue Patent Leather Tote 20484 Rare Color MintMichael Kors Patent Logo Black Tote BagAuth Louis Vuitton Bleecker Hand Bag Vernis Patent Leather Free Ship Bv04834Auth Chanel Patent Leather Black 2way Chain Shoulder Bag. Don't Miss It!!!Yves Saint Laurent Black Embossed Patent Leather Overseas Tote Handbag EvhbArcadia Italy White Patent Leather Doctor Bowling Dome Satchel Purse Handbag Michael Kors Black Patent Leather Wallet Clutch Wristlet Case For Iphone 5Ysl Yves Saint Laurent Large Downtown Black Patent Leather Tote HandbagCoach Signature Stripe Stitched Patent Leather Tote Mermaid Blue TealCoach Patent Leather Lime Green Tote Shopper Shoulder Bag #9789 Free ShippingCoach Ashley Super Cute Multicolor Signature And Patent Leather Satchel HandbagPurple Patent Leather Coach Purse - F15658 - Guaranteed AuthenticNo Reserve Authentic Prada Black Patent Leather Chevron Quilted Large Bag Used Coach Gallery Black Patent Leather Tote & Wrislet + Wallet 3 Piece Set # 12839 Coach Madison "sabrina" Black Patent Leather Purse #12957Authentic Vintage Chanel Yellow Glitter Patent Chocolate Bag 10" X 5"Authentic Burberry Bag With Red Patent Leather Trim Coach Chelsea Red Wine Patent Leather East West Tote 18770 W/matching WalletEuc Coach Pink Embossed Patent Leather Gallery E/w Tote 19462 Purse Bag SatchelCoach Genuine Leather Handbag Navy Patent LeatherMichael Kors Berkley Patent Python BagAuth Coach Black Nylon Patent Leather Large C Hobo Bag Satchel CarriageMiu Miu Prada Vitello Lux Patent Leather Bag Cross Body Shopper Purse WhiteCoach Embossed Black Patent Leather Handbag F17728Coach Soho Mahogany Signature Jacquard & Patent Hobo Duffle Tote Bag 12675Red Patent Leather Coach Zoe Sholder Bag Euc!! Retail $548-Clare Vivier Women's Designer Blue Patent Leather W/ Top Zip Flat ClutchAuthentic Chanel Patent Leather Medallion Tote Bag Handbag Salmon Pink BeigeAuthentic Chanel Ruby Patent Vinyl Coco Ming Cc Logo Xl Tote HandbagAuthentic Vintage Chanel Patent Leather Shoulder BagCoach Gallery Tote ~ Black Signature Canvas Handbag Patent Leather Trim 10630Michael Michael Kors Grayson Mk Monogram Patent Leather Satchel Bag Msrp$328.00Michael Kors Black Patent Leather Mk Signature Shoulder Handbag Gently UsedCoach Black Patent Leather Handbag Satchel With ScarfAut Arcadia Patent Leather Xl Duffle Bag Handbag Luggage Satchel Tote Italy $498$1585 Invecei Italy Designer Italian Patent Leather White Tan Large Tote 4820Coach Peyton ~ Stunning Coral Patent Leather Multi-compartment Satchel #19756Coach Red Patent Leather HandbagCoach Red Garnet Embossed Patent Leather Gallery East West Tote F17728Auth Louis Vuitton Lexington Hand Bag Vernis Patent Ivory Free Ship Euc Bv04785Coach "rose" Patent Leather Large "zoe" Hobo Handbag Coach Ergo Black Patent Leather Pleated Framed Satchel Xlarge Mint $400 12520Michael Kors Newbury Large Leather Woven Hobo Handbag Purple Patent Leather Mint