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 Dark Green Patent Leather 2.55 Reissue 227 Double Flap BagChanel Mademoiselle Reissue Flap Bag Medium Patent Leather Coral Red Boy 2.55Auth Christian Dior Matte Black Patent Leather Lady Dior Cannage Bag Shw O7042Valentino Grey Patent Leather Large Rosette Shopper ToteTory Burch Black Nylon & Patent Leather Ella Logo ToteAuth Prada Black Patent Leather Flip Flop Thong Sandals 38.5 Us 8.5 Clutch & BoxCoach Large Pink Patent Leather Signature Kisslock Hobo Tote Purse Bag F15658Auth Christian Dior Black Patent Leather Lady Dior 9.44" Cannage Bag Ghw O7041Tory Burch Black Patent Leather Suki Reva ClutchAuth Chanel Lamb Skin/patent 8.66" Chocolate Bar Camelia Hand Bag Shw O7014Tory Burch Wicker & Brown Patent Leather Rattan ClutchAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 17.71" Supermodel Shoulder Tote Bag Ghw R53640Stella Mccartney Crinkled Patent East West Falabella Tote Black 114321Genuine Burberry Supernova Check & Black Patent Leather Large Tote Shoulder BagAuth Christian Dior Red Patent Leather Lady Dior 9.44" Trotter Bag Shw O7043Brahmin Blue Patent Leather Croc Embossed Tote / Soulder BagStella Mccartney Crinkled Patent East West Falabella Tote Black 114321 Vintage Yves Saint Laurent Ysl Black Leather Patent Shoulder Bag - 339 P17 Coach Madison Chelsea Patent Leather Tote ! Wow ! L@@k! No Reserve !Chanel Quilted Patent Cc Logo Tote XlGenuine Rare Burberry Supernova Check & Black Patent Leather Medium Wallet PurseKate Spade Cross Body Bag Leather Black Patent Bow Strap Handles Msrp $275.99Auth Louis Vuitton Vernis Read Pm Hand Tote Bag Pink Patent M9132f 13945jsCoach Authentic Madison Mia Ocelot Tote Bag Rare Leopard Grey Black Patent TrimAuth Chanel Black Patent Mini 7.08" Zip Top Chain Shoulder Bag Gold Hw R53685Coach F14729 Patent Leather Cross Body Bag Hand Bag Purse Beige/ivory100% Authentic Valentino Rockstud Red Patent Leather Tote Bag With Gold StudsMarc By Marc Jacobs Bright Green Patent Leather Turnlock Shoulder BagCoach Poppy Patent Leather Jazzy Hobo Crossbody Purple Grape Ice Handbag 15790Coach Aqua Signature Embossed Patent Leather Shopper Gallery Tote Bag 14484 Auth Chanel Yellow Patent Leather 10.23" Chocolate Bar Evening Bag Shw R53638Kate Spade Bow Glossy Patent Leather Black Purse Handbag ToteCoach Signature Stripe Salmon Patent Trim Zip Top Tote Bag Purse 28504 $268Louis Vuitton Reade Pm Hand Bag Cream Vernis Patent M91334 Auth #4411 WAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 12.20" Chain Shoulder Bag W/pouch Ghw O7007Auth Chanel Pink Patent Leather 9.84" V Stitch Chain Shoulder Bag Shw R53696Ysl Saint Laurent Easy Handbag Small Patent LeatherCoach Handbag / Shoulder Bag -rare Cobalt Blue Patent LeatherCoach Black Patent Leather Signature C's Triple Section Kiss Lock Shoulder BagAuth. Chanel Limited Edition Reissue Black Patent 226 Chain Shoulder Handbag100% Authentic Prada Logo Plate Brown Enamel Patent Leather Hand Bag / 5m342Michael Kors Black Patent Leather ToteKate Spade Fushia Pink Patent Leather Satchel Bag Handbag PurseAuthentic Giorgio Armani Oversized Jet Black Patent Leather Bag Great ConditionMichael Kors Straw Black Patent Purse Authentic Vintage Jimmy Choo Riki Black Patent BagChanel Pink Patent Rose Floral Embossed Camellia Shoulder BagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 12.99" Grand Chain Tote Hand Bag Ghw U1369Auth Chanel Multi-color Patent Leather 8.66" Chain Shoulder Bag Matte Ghw R53623Tory Burch Patent Leather Grey ClutchCoach Berry Patent Leather Tribeca Convertible Shoulder BagCoach Signature Stripe Stitched Patent Leather Hobo Shoulder Bag F17421 BlackChanel Black Patent Quilted Handbag Gold Chain Handle Coach Raspberry Patent Leather Large Shoulder Bag Gray Coach Patent Leather Handbag And Cheetah Print Coach WristletAuth Chanel Brown Patent Leather 18.50" Jumbo Chain Shopper Tote Bag Shw U1382Auth Louis Vuitton Vernis Brentwood Hand Tote Bag Pearl Patent M91512 Ts10994Coach Gallery Signature Embossed Patent Leather Tote Bag Purse - Black Msrp $328Auth Coach Orange Patent Leather Signature Kiss Lock Hobo Bag Large 15658Preowned Coach F17728 Logo Patent Leather Tote Shoulder Handbag Purse $358