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Where Patent Leather Started

President, The Spruce Leather Co

Have you ever gone through a museum and stopped to admire a beautifully lacquered screen, produced in some ancient period of China's history? When you consider that time has not dimmed the lustre of the brilliant red or black surface on which are imposed the ornate dragons and intricate designs you must concede that the Chinese knew a thing or two about japanning.

It might well have been the ancient oriental custom of ending the lives of their criminals and enemies by rather spectacular methods which led to the discovery of the lacquering properties of boiled oil. I can well imagine some shrewd Chinese noticing that the container in which some hapless wretch had shuffled off this mortal coil presented a particularly bright (and lastingly bright) appearance where the oil overflowed and dried.

For patent leather is a hide coated with many applications of a preparation which is chiefly boiled oil.

At our tannery we boil huge vats of oil to a temperature of 700 degrees. The next step we call reducing the oil. When the temperature drops 200 degrees or so, raw naphtha is poured into the kettle. It is a dangerous operation and we have men stationed quite a distance away from the plant to see that no one passes with a lighted cigarette, for the foglike vapor emanating from the combination of boiling oil and naphtha is exceedingly volatile and would cause considerable damage if it exploded.

After the result of the cooking cools and certain secret ingredients are added, it is set aside to age. When it is ready for use, top grain cowhides are stretched over large frames and the process of making patent leather moves to its next stage.

A number of coats of the boiled oil are applied, each coat being baked in an oven overnight before the application of the succeeding one, and, in addition, various types of varnish are added. When all of the coats are on the hides are put out into the sun, for the rays of old Sol seem to have a particularly -beneficial effect in welding the various coats together in one homogenious covering or lustrous, beautiful and lasting finish.

New Color Developments

It is within only the past few years that japanners have been able to produce patent leather in the magnificent array of colors you now see. As the men connected with me have had considerable share in the development of this great stride forward, we naturally take great pride in the accomplishment. There is now no color too difficult to match, and in the bright finish of patent leather the shades we have used have made an unusual appeal to fashion minded women.

Color is introduced in the final few coats (the exact process is a jealously guarded trade secret), the basic coats remaining practically the same. The hides used for handbag patent leather are treated to be soft and pliable, and are bark tanned, whereas the shoe patent leather is chrome tanned. Chrome leather has a tendency to wrinkle when worked in handbags, whereas the bark tanned handbag patent leather may be even shirred without affecting the surface. Patent leather properly made will last as long if not longer than other leathers. It is easily cleanable; a damp cloth sufficing to take off finger marks and smudges. A good way to clean the leather is to use a little naphtha mixed with water, and, if you want to retain the brightness, simply wipe the article with a soft cloth on which there is a drop or two of lemon oil.

Japanning in America

Patent leather was introduced in this country by a man named Seth Boyden who had a small shop in Newark all of a hundred years ago. He began enameling when he made dash boards for carriages. Then he used patent leather in shoes and started a vogue which had a long life in this country. Those who remember even the turn of this century will recall that the best pair of shoes for men were usually of patent leather since they were easily kept clean and always made a good appearance. Patent leather has been used in handbags intermittently for the past two decades. At one period it was a leather used the year round, and it is again gradually gaining that acceptance.

Practical for Summer

Patent leather in white enjoys a great popularity for it is one of the most practical of handbag materials since it is cleanable. The same feature makes it ideal for the new pastels which will be important in bags for the coming season. Bright colors look very well in the high lustre leather and in black it offers an effective contrast for many other surfaces. That is why patent leather is now widely considered by stylists to be a leather suitable for accessories such as handbags, belts and shoes, the year round.

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Page last modified on November 10, 2005, at 08:28 PM