Patent leather is a type of japanned leather that has been given a high gloss, shiny finish. The process was brought to the United States and improved by inventor Seth Boyden of Newark, New Jersey in 1818, with commercial manufacture beginning September 20, 1819. Boyden's process, which he never patented, used a linseed oil–based lacquer coating. Modern patent leather usually has a plastic coating.
In general, patent leather begins as a superior grade of fine grain leather that undergoes a process to achieve the glossy look. A member from the Baudry/Boudrie from Brussels Belgium invented patent leather in the late 1700s. An early reference to patent leather is in the 1793 British periodical, The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer, which notes — in an article entitled "Hand's patent leather" — that "a gentleman of the name of Hand" in Birmingham, England obtained a patent for preparing flexible leather having a glaze and polish that renders it impervious to water and need only be wiped with a sponge to restore it to its original luster. In November 1799, inventor Edmund Prior of Holborn, London, England received a patent for a method of painting and coloring all kinds of leather, and in January 1805, inventor Charles Mollersten of Hackney Wick received a patent for applying a chemical composition in the preparation of hides, skins, and leather to give "a beautiful gloss." However, patent leather primarily owes its popularity to Seth Boyden.
In 1818, Boyden received a piece of German manufactured patent leather (said to be a German military cap front) from a local carriage manufacturer and used that to investigate the possibility of creating a version of leather in the United States that was treated in such a way that the material would be decidedly more dressy than work boots and similar leather goods, but retained its desirable qualities of protection and durability. To reverse engineer the European patent leather, Boyden set up a shed at the Malleable Cast Iron Foundry of Condit & Bowles at 25 S Orange Avenue in Newark, New Jersey and ultimately discovered a way to produce his own patent leather. Using a formula that was based on a series of treatments using layers of linseed oil-based coats, the new shiny leather began commercial production on 20 September 1819. Boyden’s efforts resulted in the production of glossy leather that quickly caught on as a complement for formal dress. Ironically, Boyden never patented his inventive process.
A subsequent European method of manufacture was described in 1906 as follows:
In the preparation of enameled leather, a foundation coat of lampblack mixed with linseed oil has been laid on the flesh side, since the infancy of the industry in Europe. Successive coats of this mixture are applied, the skin being allowed to dry and the surface ground down with pumice-stone" after each coat. Then the skins are blackened again with a fluid black mixed with turpentine, and hung up to dry again. After the skins have been allowed to settle, being laid in a pile for about a month's time, or longer if possible, the leather is tacked onto a frame and receives a brush coat of varnish. A baking follows in an oven of moderate heat. The temperature is gradually raised and the baking continued three days. Exposure to the sun for ten hours completes the process. Recently American manufacturers have been making patent leather from chrome-tanned skins. The product is quite different, as is also the process employed. The leather is softer, more flexible, and takes a less brilliant polish than that made from bark-tanned leather, but it is much less likely to crack and is more suitable for shoes than the brittle and inflexible leather made by the older process.
The invention of plastics subsequently changed the methods for producing patent leather. Plastic finishes were able to produce effects similar to the application of several treatments with linseed oil, with the advantage of considerably less monetary investment on the part of the producer. Over time, the development of synthetic resins further simplified the process and cut production costs even further, making the mass production of patent leather possible.
Characterized by a glass-like finish that catches the light, patent leather is typically solid black. Patent leather may also come in several colors such as neutral tan, white, black or even neon colors such as neon-green and hot-pink. In addition to the mirror-like finish, patent leather is also virtually waterproof, while still retaining a very flexible texture. The visual aspects of patent leather have made it a sought-after material for formal accessories. Most men's footwear produced to be worn with tuxedos or with dress military uniforms is made of patent leather, and many formal types of heels for women are also produced using patent leather. Clutches and small handbags for women are also made using patent leather, as well as some formal wallets and cigarette cases. Patent leather has also seen popular use on sneakers.
Patent leather and poromerics are cleaned in a similar way. Dirt adhering to the coating can be removed with a damp cloth, using a mild soap if needed. Minor scratches and scuff marks in the coating can be removed using one of several special-purpose patent leather and poromeric cleaners on the market. With wear and tear, patent leather will eventually lose its glossy finish, but will still be smoother than most other types of leather, looking almost rubbery.
Patent leather and poromerics are used in applications where an eye-catching glossy appearance is the most important consideration. Examples include fashion items such as wallets and handbags, dance and uniform shoes, kinky boots and professional wrestling boots, belts and trench coats. In recent years patent leather has become a popular material for limited-edition sneakers.
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