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Lucite Handbags :
A Guide to Plastic Purses of the 1950s


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Last updated in March 2004   

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Link to THE GALLERY: PHOTOS of my collection


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History and Background

        Lucite handbags were created in the 1950s from DuPont's revolutionary new plastic.  Shapely and structured, there was never anything like them nor has there been since.  They came in an endless variety of odd shapes (beehive, pagoda, trapezoid, pail, log, oval, kidney....), colors (standard grey and white, obscure chartruese, creamy yellow, pale green, dark tortoise.....), textures and shades (glitter, pearly, opaque, shiny, transparent, metallic...).  Best of all, they were fabulously imaginative.

        Initially, the handbags were sold in high end department stores and popular with the actresses and showgirls.  This market grew to develop continually higher quality bags consisting of very thick plastics and heavy lids.   Later, manufacturers also served the lower-end market by providing handbags made of lighter, more fragile plastics that could be afforded by teenagers at the local five and dime. Popular signatures included:

arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Llewellyn                 arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Tyrolean                   arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Miami Handbags   
arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Myles Originals      arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Gilli Orginals            arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Patricia of Miami
arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Dorset-Rex             arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Maxim                       arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Majestic
arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Wilardy                    arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Charles S. Kahn       arcbul1a.gif (133 bytes)Rialto


        Though manufacturers ceased production of the handbags by 1960,  they can still be found through extensive searching and wishful thinking.

Cleaning Your Handbag

        Three remarkable polishes make a Lucite purse sparkle!  First, Simichrome metal polish renews all the metal hardware to a shiny finish (though be careful--it also occasionally turns gold hardware into silver! Still bright 'n shiny, though!).  Next, Novus Plastic Polish #2 removes minor surface scratches, making your Lucite slippery smooth.   Finally, Novus Plastic Polish #1 sprays on to create a truly lustrous and gleaming finish.   Your 40-year old handbag will look spanking new!
             Repairs, on the other hand, are a different and sad story.  Cracks and chips can be carefully mended with glue....but I've never been able to do so with any amount of satisfaction.  And fogging, smearing, or warping?  Normally, I would say HOPELESS!  But some claim that these diseases can occasionally be cured with the ultra careful wielding of an oven, blow dryer or even microwave, though I'm way too skittish to attempt any of these processes, so you're on your own here.  On the bright side, injured handbags can be toted around town much more recklessly and may be the prefered choice for the rough 'n tumble handbag girl!

Words of caution: 
Lucites with the stripe-y pattern are more sensitive than the pearly or opaque lucites.  This generally includes the non-opaque tortoise handbags and the prototypical beehive bag (see my gallery website).  In these cases, polishes should only be used sparingly because they tend to cause the color to wear away!   Yikes!  You know you should not be polishing if color comes off the handbag and onto your polishing cloth!!
Windex may be the knee-jerk reaction to cleaning these handbags but refrain from all such cleansers!!  Amonia is bad, bad, bad and will harm your Lucite child in the long run! Trust me-- invest in this plastic polish---it performs minor miracles.  Otherwise, just use water.          

Storing Your Handbag

        Don't fry that handbag!  Aside from being breakable, smashable, and scratchable, Lucite handbags are also warpable, meltable, and shrinkable!  Avoid heat.   Do not keep your handbags in a room that tends to get hot because the handbag's structure will be altered!  The lid may not fit so snuggly, the glue may unravel, the plastic may warp, the handbag may even sweat liquid Lucite, and who knows what other horrors will arise from your irresponsible negligence!  These catastrophes can occur within minutes or over a very long period of time, but make no mistake, the damage is irreparable.  Lucite handbags are sensitive sheets of wimpy plastic, so keep them in a cool place and make sure that air conditioner is cranked up during those warm and sunny days!

Health Issues

       Yes, health issues.  THIS JUST IN from my med-student pal Wendy-Jade!!  Wendy has done her lab homework, so pay attention:    That odor-emitting lucite bag you have lying around the house could KILL you!   Wendy writes: "The gas stings eyes, causes allergic skin reactions, and repeated exposure can screw up your immune system.  The medical jury is still out on whether it causes cancer."  And what stylin' lucite gal needs bloodshot eyes, bad complexion, and terminal maladies?!!  It's enough to throw that smelly lucite out the window!

References

    While you may find a smattering of Lucite handbag photos in various 50's collectors books and vintage purse books, only two are actually dedicated to Lucite handbags.  The first book, titled "A Certain Style:  The Art of the Plastic Handbag" came out in 1988 and was written by Gottlieb and Maresca.  This book is coffee-table-esque and depicts the handbags in the glorified fashion for which they were meant.  But you'll have to scrounge around a while (if you're a collector, you should be used to that!) because this book is out of print.  The second book was published in 1992 by Kate Dooner: "Plastic Handbags: Sculpture to Wear".  This has more photos and is a great pictorial reference, though the price guide in the back is a bit questionable and the photos aren't nearly as beautiful as those in the Gottlieb/Maresca book.  font>

 


Please click the button wood go button.gif (2937 bytes)if you have Lucite handbags you'd like to sell or discuss!!

 

Acknowledgments:  Photo courtesy of The Bag Lady
Also thanks to Janice of Deco Jewels for teaching me how to polish!