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    

Auth Chanel Pink Patent Jumbo 11.81" Double Flap Chian Shoulder Bag Shw G80062Auth Chanel Black Patent Leather 19,68" Grand Bag Chain Shoulder Tote Shw W215Auth Chanel Pink Patent Leather 10" Double Flap Chain Shoulder Bag Shw R50023Auth Chanel Salmon Pink Patent 10" Double Flap Chain Shoulder Bag Shw C80050 Alaia Black Geometric Laser Cut Patent Leather ToteYves Saint Laurent Patent Leather Oversized Muse Black Purse Shoulder Bag 81327Mulberry Patent Mini Leopard Alexa Black Bag Purse 81176Authentic Chanel Jumbo Blue Patent Quilted Leather Double Flap Bag Michael Kors Jet Set Patent Leather Bright Pink Chain Tote Shopper Handbag PurseAuthentic Chanel White Perforated Patent Leather ToteAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 16.53 Chain Shoulder Tote Bag Silver Hw C80030Authentic Chanel 2013 Medium Black Patent Boy Handbag Aged Silver Hw *pre-owned Dolce & Gabbana Red Patent Leather Shoulder Chain Charms Bag HandbagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 9.84" Single Chain Shoulder Bag Ghw R50055Auth Chanel Reissue Red Patent Leather 9.44 Double Chain Shoulder Bag Ghw C80043Gucci Shoulder Bag Patent Leather Solid ColourKate Spade Patent Leather Tote, Handbag, Purse, BagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 10.03" Single Flap Shoulder Bag Ghw C80170Maison Martin Margiela Black Crinkled Patent Leather & Matte Silver HandbagAuth Chanel Black Patent Leather 9.84" Chain Hand Bag Tote Silver Hw R50108Alaia Black Laser Cut Patent Leather Large Tote100% Authentic Chanel Black Patent Rock Handbag Bag Tote Gold Luxury Chain $2495Gucci Red Snow Glam Small Boston Bag 181527/ 2123 Patent Leather Double ZipperCoach Patent Leather Stitched Signature Crossbody Hobo Handbag Black EucCoach Tribeca Plum Patent Leather Gallery Shoulder Tote Bag 14123Mint Coach Madison Black Crinkled Patent Leather Sabrina Satchel 12957 Purse BagMichael Kors Signature Black Patent Leather Brown Leather Trim Large Handbag *authentic* Michael Kors Black Jet Set Chain Patent Leather Tote #38t2xjst3aAuth Chanel Cc Black Patent Leather 11.41" Chocolate Bar Shoulder Bag Shw R50132Coach Rose Signature Embossed Patent Leather E/w Gallery Tote Bag 19462Auth Chanel Black Patent Skin 13.77" Hand Shoulder Boston Bag Gold Hw R0668Tory Burch Black Patent And Straw Clutch HandbagCoach Gallery Brown Patent Leather Gold Accent Shoulder Bag Tote F20432Chanel Black Patent Boy Bag (small) chanel Double Flap Jumbo, Pink Patent Leather BagMichael Kors Black Embossed Patent Leather Satchel Shoulder Bag MintPincaldi Black Embossed Patent Convertible Fold Over Shoulder BagCoach Khaki Brown Signature Canvas Red Patent Leather Button Wristlet BagVersace Purple Patent Leather Quilted Purse Tote Handbag Large BhfoKate Spade Green & Navy Striped Canvas & Patent Leather Tote BagAuth Coach Women Embossed Black Patent Leather Tote Bag Purse With Logo DesignAuth Chanel Black Patent Skin 12.59" Cc Logo Chain Tote Shoulder Bag Shw R50187Coach Black Patent Leather Diaper Bag/tote Style# F19256Chloe Patent Leather Flap Top Ball ClutchCoach Soho Pleated Large Signature Black Patent Leather Bag Purse Satchel F13742Authentic Coach Handbag And Wallet Black Patent Leather Embossed "c" PatternTory Burch Authentic Geometric Ikat Logo Reva Clutch Handbag-$395 Patent/leatherAuth Louis Vuitton Reade Pm Monogram Vernis Hand Bag Patent Beige 10075995Miu Miu Brown Patent Leather Tortoise Shell Chain Baguette Shoulder BagTory Burch Large Tote Bag Navy Blue & Brown Canvas With Patent LeatherAuth Chanel Reissue Black Patent / Canvas Chocolate Bar Accordion Bag Shw C80057Black Patent Leather Christian Louboutin Pigalle 120mm Pump, W/ Box & Dust BagCoach Madison Diagonal Pleated Patent Tote 21300 Punch Pre-owened Msr 428$Michael Kors Black Patent Leather Women's Baguette Clutch Handbag PurseAuth Louis Vuitton Vernis Spring Street Hand Bag Purse Gris Patent M91029 5574js~ Dark Blue Patent Leather Arcadia Carry All Tote Shoulder Satchel Duffel Bag ~Auth Chanel Brown Goat / Patent Skin 15.74" Chain Tote Hand Bag Shw R0628Coach Poppy Patent Leather Glam Tote 15791 (sv/grape/ice)Auth Louis Vuitton Reade Mm Damier Vernis Tote Bag Hand Patent Red 10075875Coach Blue Jacquard Signature Magenta Patent Trim Tote Shoulder Bag Purse F14940