The 1950s Lucite Handbag

Since I spent the better half of last week going on about 1950s skirts, I thought I might as well expand the theme into another iconic 1950s piece – the Lucite handbag.  I’m not a big handbag person, so I’ve had to rely on the expertise of others.  There is a bibliography at the end of the post.

The Lucite handbag is one of those items that just seems to be a symbol of the time in which it was created.  Lucite had been developed by Dupont in 1931, but it wasn’t until after WWII that the hard plastic was used to make everything from jewelry and handbags to furniture.  It was a new age, and modern materials and design were thought to be the wave of the future.  Lucite handbags were introduced in the late 1940s, and they quickly became the evening bag of choice.

Lucite was in many ways an ideal material for making bags.  It could be made in many colors, it was easily shaped and carved, and objects, such as glitter and rhinestones, could be embedded in it.  On the downside, while the material itself was not expensive to produce, the processes in making the handbags were labor-intensive and costly.  As a result, the handbags were not cheap, a fact that often adds to an object’s desirability!  There was also a great deal of competition within the plastic purse market, which led some companies to develop even more costly additions such as built-in compacts and satin linings.

It was the development of a cheaper process, plastic injection molding, that led to the demise of the Lucite handbag.  With this process, hard plastics could be shaped into handbags at a fraction of the cost of the older methods.  When hard plastics were within the reach of all consumers, they lost a great deal of their appeal.  By the 1960s, hard plastic handbags were passé.  As a little girl in the early 1960s, I can recall one lovely bag sitting on the old dressing table of an aunt who had married in 1958.   She had left at her parents’ home those things she no longer needed, including that beautiful bag on which she had spent quite a bit of her secretary’s salary!

Today, there are many collectors of Lucite handbags.  This is one area of collecting in which condition is most important.  And while Lucite bags are durable and quite sturdy, when stored under poor conditions, they tend to develop cracks, warping and the overall breaking down of the plastic.  Veteran collector Leigh of Cosmiccowgirl Vintage  has ten questions she needs to have answered before investing in a handbag:

1) With the exception of any intentional design-oriented carvings, is the entire surface of the handbag — including the lid and handle — completely smooth?

2) Are there any scratches, cracks, warping, chips, or repairs? If so, where are they and what size are they?

3) Does the bag have an odor, particularly like vinegar, or a chemical smell?

4) Is there any fogging, smearing or smudging of color or transparency anywhere on the bag?

5) How clear is the lid? Is there any “sun shattering” (spider vein type cracks within the Lucite that cannot be felt on the surface?)

6) Are all the hardware and parts functioning as normal (nothing loose/bent/missing)?

7) Are all the metal parts shiny? Are there any signs of corrosion, discoloration or other damage to the metal? Is there any discoloration, buildup, or tarnish on the interior hinge? If so, what color is the discoloration?

8) Does the lid snap tightly on top of the bag and the clasp hold soundly? Are there any spaces between the lid and body of the purse when closed? If so, how big are the spaces?

9) Any other flaws or signs of wear?

10) If the bag is not as described, may I return it for a full refund including shipping?

Johnson, Anna, Handbags: The Power of the Purse.  New York: Workman Publishing, 2002.

Miller, Judith, Handbags.  London: Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 2006.

Wilcox, Claire, A Century of Bags. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1997.

10 Comments

Filed under Collecting, Vintage Clothing

10 responses to “The 1950s Lucite Handbag

  1. Jacqueline

    At a museum I used to work at, we had a beautiful lucite bag in tortoise. It was stored in climate control in a drawer surrounded by acid-free materials. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to matter. Its plastic was particularly unstable and it began to liquidfy. It would develop a layer of liquid on the outside repeatedly. It was the strangest thing, and to this day I’ve only ever heard of one other case of mid-century plastic deteriorating like that.

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  2. Fabulous post Lizzie. Thanks for all the information and the check list too. :-)

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  3. I love these bags. So stylish. Useful checklist … thanks. M

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  4. ourdailydress

    This is super handy – I’m considering investing in a lucite handbag so it was really helpful to know what to look for

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  5. Sources:
    Johnson, Anna, Handbags: The Power of the Purse. New York: Workman Publishing, 2002.

    Miller, Judith, Handbags. London: Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 2006.

    Wilcox, Claire, A Century of Bags. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1997.

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  6. The great thing with Lucite Handbags was they could be easily shaped and carved although processing was costly.Thank you for your tips “to keep in mind before investing in a handbags”.

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  7. Susanne

    My black confetti Lucite bag actually deteriorated. Started 8 years ago with a small green patch in the back corner. The patch has grown to include the metal bolts — which have now rusted through — that hold on the handles. I also see wetness and “sweating” that’s turning green. Interesting study in chemistry?

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  8. Elizabeth Cunningham

    I have a Rialto lucite purse that is beginning to deteriorate…any suggestions on how to prevent the progression?

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