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 Saint Laurent Paris Blue Patent Leather Gold Tassel Clutch Shoulder BagCoach Ashley Signature Satchel Black Patent Leather Sateen Purse Satchel F15443Auth Chanel Black Patent Leather 9 Double Flap 2.55 Chain Shoulder Bag Ghw R5752Authentic Chanel Maxi Jumbo Double Flap Bag Patent W Receipt$428 Coach Denim Bleeker Patent Leather Tote #12573, Rare$228 Calvin Klein Patent Saffiano Leather Shoulder Bag Purse Brown Handbag Yves Saint Laurent Patent Croc Tribute Tote Black Handbag Purse 70849Kate Spade Patent Leather Black & White Stripe Crossbody Shoulder Bag PurseChanel Classic Quilted Black Patent Leather Medium Double Flap Bag Handbag Purse$228 Calvin Klein Patent Saffiano Leather Shoulder Bag Purse Handbag H4gb13ccCoach Embossed Patent Op Art Small Leah Tote In Fuchsia Style 13175Gucci Black Patent Leather Handbag Shoulder Tote Bag Rare!!!Auth Christian Dior Black Patent Lady Dior Cannage Tote Hand Bag Gold Hw R4159Authentic Chanel Black Canvas Patent Leather Tote Handbag Purse Shoulde Bag Nr Coach Mermaid Blue Bag Teal Aqua Patent Leather Handbag Signature CarryallAuth Versace Black Patent Hand Bag 5d139700Auth Christian Dior Black Patent Lady Dior Cannage Tote Hand Bag Ghw R4160Auth Chanel Patent Leather Tote Shoulder Bag 5d136240Coach Blue Op Art Poppy Tote Patent Leather Edge Signature C Optic 3d Glam 14983Tory Burch Black Patent Leather Perforated Logo Handbag Bn135Valentino Garavani Patent Leather Histoire Tote Gold Handbag Shoulder 68419Versace Purple Patent Leather Quilted Purse Tote Handbag Large BhfoEuc Coach Madison Tribeca Op Art Khaki Tote With Patent Leather Chain LinkKate Spade Sophie Beale Street Patent Leather Tote RedYsl Yves Saint Laurent "y" Clutch Gold Patent Leather 100% AuthenticEuc Tory Burch Black Patent Large Robinson Satchel Authentic Dust Bag & StrapVersace Purple Patent Leather Quilted Purse Tote Handbag Large BhfoLarge Authentic Coach Ashley Pink White Patent Leather Gray Snaphead Bag Purse Michael Kors $248 Mirror White Monogram Jet Set Patent Signature Grab Bag PurseMarc By Marc Jacobs Purple Patent Totally Turnlock Percy Crossbody BagMichael Kors Red Patent Leather Wristlet Mini Purse Cell Phone CaseGucci Black Patent Leather Clutch~rareBurberry Authentic Aston Embossed Check Patent Leather Sling Bag Black SmallAuth Longchamp Black Crushed Patent Leather Tote HandbagKate Spade Patent Leather ToteTory Burch Patent Leather Shoulder Clutch With Gold Chain - Great Deal!Kate Spade Patent Leather Black & White Stripe Crossbody Shoulder Bag PurseChanel Off-white Patent Leather Hand Bag W/silver Chain, Serial # 11371515Michael Kors Jet Set Chain Item Patent Palm Green Tote BagCoach Large Black & Gray Signature Black Patent Leather Purse (authentic)Michael Kors Black Patent Logo Handbag **excellent**Auth Chanel Ivory Patent Leather 10" Single Flap Chain Shoulder Bag Shw W 075Dooney & Bourke Patent Leather Satchel Handbag Grey W/fob $325 Value Authentic! Original Large Gray Tod's Shoulder Bag In Silk With Patent Leather DetailsAuthentic Used Coach Handbag Wallet Black Patent LeatherTory Burch Mini Ella Tote In Beige Coated Canvas With Patent Trim Msrp $225Authentic Gianni Versace Black Patent Shoulder Bag 5d145990Auth Louis Vuitton Vernis Houston Hand Tote Bag Patent Leather Silver 251-5 (37)100% Authentic Valentino Patent White Clutch Rockstud HandbagCoach Authentic Black Patent Leather Trim Tartan Plaid Pink Signature Tote 15229Yves Saint Laurent Sage Green Patent Leather Capri Shoulder BagCoach Sabrina Metallic Blue Convertible Patent Leather Satchel Bag, PurseKate Spade Dark Brown Patent Leather HandbagGenuine Ladies Anya Hindmarch Black Patent Leather Shoulder Handbag -37 G18Coach ~ Black Patent Leather Signature Turnlock Zip Around Clutch Wallet #47859Salvatore Ferragamo Black Patent Leather Logo Shoulder Handbag Bn135$1600 Louis Vuitton Brentwood Amarante Patent Vernis Tote Shoulder Bag HandbagKate Spade Emerald Avenue Black Patent Leather Tote EucAuthentic Mcm Black Nylon Patent Leather Shoulder Tote Bag 1579Kate Spade Purse/handbag Black Patent + Brown Faux & Real Leather Trim & Strap