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 WalletAuth Christian Dior Black Patent Lady Dior Cannage Tote Hand Bag Ghw C2396Vintage Chanel Bag Black Patent Leather Cc Logo Tote Shopper Shoulder BagAnya Hindmarch Tan Patent Leather Convertible Shoulder BagYves Saint Laurent Patent Croc Medium Downtown Tote Black Purse Handbag 77113 Mulberry Textured Patent Harriet Satchel Beige Purse Handbag Tote Shopper 78925Jimmy Choo Black Patent Leather & Gold Grommet ClutchTory Burch Gray Metallic Patent Leather Tote Bag HandbagAuthentic Chanel Rare Classic Flap Bag Patent Leather Handbag 24k Gold Chain VtgChanel Vintage Patent Quilted Box Bag Beige Purse Handbag Tote 76143Authentic Tory Burch Black Crinkle Patent Leather Shoulder Bag Shopper ToteYves Saint Laurent Patent Large Muse Nude Purse Tote Shopper Handbag 78869Vintage Ferragamo Black Patent Leather Over The Shoulder Handbag Coach Gallery Embossed Patent Leather Tote Bag F19462 Crimson Mint Rt $358 Auth Christian Dior Wine Red Patent Lady Dior Cannage Tote Hand Bag Shw Z2470Burberry Nova Check Handbag W/ Blk Patent TrimVersace Palazzo Patent Leather Black Authentic Clutch Bag Gold Chain Strap $1150Alexander Mcqueen Black Patent Leather Elvie Handbag Bag Italy Medium McqGucci Black Patent Leather Large Double Handle Shoulder Tote Satchel HandbagLarge Patent Chili Red Kate Spade "street Circle" Tote Shopper PurseCoach Lilac Signature Embossed Patent Slim Crossbody Hobo Gallery Tote Bag 16172Gucci Auth Soho Interlocking Gg Uniform Blue Patent Leather Light Gold Chain BagKate Spade Cross Body Bag Black PatentMichael Kors Natural Straw Patent Leather Trim Tote Bag Auth Chanel Shoulder Hand Bag Cosmetic Pouch Vanity Patent Leather Black G111Genuine Coach F15142 Olive Patent Leather Shoulder Bag PurseMichael Kors Cross Body Authentic Black Patent Leather PurseCoach Brown Canvas Signature Patent Leather Handle Satchel Bag Purse 12947Kate Spade Quinn Prestwick Noel Coral Orange Patent Tan Leather Bag Purse ToteAuthentic Coach Legacy Francine Teal Patent Leather Domed Satchel 12295 RareMint Coach 14276 Purple Quilted Nylon Patent Alex Tote Bag Purse Shoulder BagAuthentic Coach Purse Ashley Blue Satchel Patent Leather HandbagCoach Embossed Patent Leather Tote HandbagMichael Kors Signature Patent East West Tote NickelVintage Chanel Backpack Bucket Bag Patent Leather Damaged But Still Usable GoldLadies Freedex 1960's / 50's Navy Blue Patent Leather Clasp Handbag - 317 S22Kate Spade Jeralyn Black Tote Handbag Patent Leather Pre Owned Msrp $85!!Coach Beige Brown Jacquard Patent Leather Handle Tote Shoulder Bag Purse F17433100% Authentic Tory Burch Green Ella Tote Logo Nylon PatentCoach Gallery Embossed Patent Leather Tote Bag Blossom PinkDooney & Bourke ~ Stunning Hot Pink Patent Leather Chiara Tote HandbagAuthentic Coach Poppy Magenta Patent Leather Glam Tote #13836 VgcMichael Kors Jet Set ,patent Leather Tote, Tourquise, GreenKate Spade Beige Patent Leather Gold Chainlink Shoulder BagChristian Dior Lady Large Burgundy Red Patent Leather Handbag Bag Purse $4800Authentic Louis Vuitton Indian Rose Vernis Alma Gm Handbag Patent LeatherArcadia - Italian Purse/satchel - Patent Leather - Black W/red StitchingCoach Purse Embossed Purple Patent LeatherVintage Authentic Bally Shoulder Bag Black Leather Patent Leather 5e256690# Jimmy Choo Reese Nude Patent Leather Clutch Henri Bendel West 57th Patent E/w Tote Dooney And Bourke Blue Patent Zip Zip Satchel EucCoach Sabrina Metallic Blue Convertible Patent Leather Satchel Bag, PurseDooney And Bourke Patent Leather Cindy Tote In Candy Apple Red ColorKate Spade Stacy Glitter Bug Wallet- Pink, Patent Leather, ClutchBnwt Mimco $199 Rose Gold Turnlock Wallet Clutch Black Patent Leather W/dust BagAuth Louis Vuitton Vernis Columbus Shoulder Tote Bag Purse Patent M91028 4768jsCoach Signature C Stitch Frame Patent Leather Carryall Handbag H1193 F15658Autheitc Coach Chocolate Brown Signature Fabric & Patent Leather Purse HandbagCoach 12362 Large Bleeker Plum Berry Patent Leather Tote Shoulder Handbag $398