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    

Celine White Patent Signature Long Zippy Clutch WalletAnya Hindmarch Tan Patent Leather Convertible Shoulder BagVintage Chanel Bag Black Patent Leather Cc Logo Tote Shopper Shoulder BagYves Saint Laurent Patent Croc Medium Downtown Tote Black Purse Handbag 77113 Auth Chanel Black Patent Leather 11.81" Double Chain Shoulder Bag Shw C2728Jimmy Choo Black Patent Leather & Gold Grommet ClutchMulberry Textured Patent Harriet Satchel Beige Purse Handbag Tote Shopper 78925Auth Christian Dior Black Patent Leather Lady Dior Cannage Hand Bag Ghw Rm10057Chanel Vintage Patent Quilted Box Bag Beige Purse Handbag Tote 76143Yves Saint Laurent Patent Large Muse Nude Purse Tote Shopper Handbag 78869Kate Spade Beige Patent Leather Gold Chainlink Shoulder BagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather Jumbo 11.81" Chain Shoulder Bag Gold Hw C2727Auth Chanel Black Patent Leather 11.81" Double Chain Shoulder Bag Ghw C2726Coach Gallery Embossed Patent Leather Tote Bag F19462 Crimson Mint Rt $358 Gucci Auth Soho Interlocking Gg Uniform Blue Patent Leather Light Gold Chain BagAuth Chanel Yellow Patent Leather 11.81" Chocolate Bar Shoulder Bag Shw C2718Auth Chanel Shoulder Hand Bag Cosmetic Pouch Vanity Patent Leather Black G111Ysl Yves St Laurent Rive Gauche Majorelle Black Patent Leather Bag PurseGucci Black Patent Leather Large Double Handle Shoulder Tote Satchel HandbagAuthentic Louis Vuitton Indian Rose Vernis Alma Gm Handbag Patent LeatherAuthentic Gucci Soho Mini Chain Crossbody Bag Black Patent LeatherMarni Burgundy Patent Leather & Brown Leather Convertible Shoulder BagTory Burch Nylon Ella Black Patent Leather Shoulder Tote Purse Bag $195 Ijv064Coach Beige Brown Jacquard Patent Leather Handle Tote Shoulder Bag Purse F17433Coach Signature Pink Patent Leather HandbagCoach Wine/ Red Patent Leather Gallery Embossed Signature Purse H1149- F17728Michael Kors Jet Set ,patent Leather Tote, Tourquise, GreenAuth Louis Vuitton Reade Pm Monogram Vernis Hand Bag Patent Leather 10074224Coach Brown Canvas Signature Patent Leather Handle Satchel Bag Purse 12947Jimmy Choo Reese Nude Patent Leather Clutch Dooney And Bourke Blue Patent Zip Zip Satchel EucClassic Chanel Black Patent Leather Backpack BagAuth Chanel Black Patent Skin 11.81" Cc Medallion Tote Shoulder Bag Ghw C2713Vintage Chanel Quilted Patent Leather Bag - Authentic And Only OneGenuine Coach F15142 Olive Patent Leather Shoulder Bag PurseCoach Sabrina Metallic Blue Convertible Patent Leather Satchel Bag, PurseCoach Signature C Stitch Frame Patent Leather Coral Carry All Handbag - GorgeousDooney And Bourke Patent Leather Cindy Tote In Candy Apple Red ColorAuth Chanel Cc Logo Black Patent Leather 9.84" Hand Bag Purse Silver Hw C2742Michael Kors Signature Patent East West Tote Nickel100% Auth Louis Vuitton Vernis Reade Pm Hand Tote Bag Red Patent M91088 Rb1653sAuth Louis Vuitton Houston Monogram Vernis Shoulder Bag Patent Leather 10074137Betsey Johnson Black Quilted Handbag Tote With Patent Trim Gold Trim.Kate Spade Stacy Glitter Bug Wallet- Pink, Patent Leather, ClutchMichael Kors Black Animal Print Textured Patent Leather Evening ClutchKate Spade Chocolate Brown Patent Leather Clutch WalletAutheitc Coach Chocolate Brown Signature Fabric & Patent Leather Purse HandbagGenuine Dooney & Bourke Purple Patent Leather Tote Bag With Hang TagLadies Frame Damantie Faux Leather Patent Leopard Print Shoulder Handbag PurpleAuth Louis Vuitton Cosmic Pm Shoulder Bag Purse Pink Pvc Patent M93160 Ts2919Coach Patent Leather Multifuction Tote BagCoach Poppy Handbag Patent Leather❤️❤️❤ Coach Daisy Poppy Liquid Gloss Berry Patent Leather Tote Msrp $300! ❤️❤️❤ Ysl Easy Y Royal Blue Patent Leather Zip Tote BagMint Coach 14276 Purple Quilted Nylon Patent Alex Tote Bag Purse Shoulder BagAuthentic Gucci Patent Leather Purse BrownCoach Peyton Embossed Patent Leather Multifunction Tote Bag #f26030Prada Rare Black Patent Leather Small Prada Logo 925 Handbag Made ItalyCoach Plum Purple Patent Leatheer Purse/pocketbook/handbag 10x16x6 LargeAnne Fontaine Beige Straw & Patent Leather Floral Handbag Purse