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A Guide To Vintage Lucite Purses

By , 9 July, 2009, 25 Comments

I’ve long admired vintage Lucite purses — I say “admired” because these rare babies keep me at arm’s length with their hefty price tags and my fear of damaging them while using them. Don’t get me wrong; their rarity completely warrants the digits on tags. In fact, I don’t see them at antique stores or vintage fashion shops very often, and even online, they can be difficult to find. (All of this only reinforces my fear of using them.)

Anyway, because I don’t see them very often anymore, I was surprised to find not one but two sellers at my local antique mall selling multiple old Lucite purses; so I snapped some pics.

Vintage Lucite Purses

Vintage Lucite Purses

Shopping for vintage Lucite purses becomes even more thrilling when you consider the vast array of styles, shapes and colors these vintage purses came in. And that’s part of the challenge too — as with most fabulous vintage finds, when you fall in love with one, rest assured, finding another just like it is no picnic.

Of course, you can always fall in love again with another, right? (But trust me, your heart will still ache for that long lost love…)

pretty-vintage-lucite-purses

Because I do far more longing for & playing peek-a-boo with vintage plastic handbags, I know more about them than a non-owner or non-collector should…

Here are Thirteen Things About Vintage Lucite Purses

1. While we collectively call these vintage purses “Lucite purses,” there’s a bit of irony to the name. Technically the purses are made of Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) poly(methyl 2-methylpropenoate), a thermoplastic and transparent plastic first patented by German chemist Otto Röhm in the early 1930’s and sold under the name Plexiglass. Lucite is the registered name of DuPont‘s acrylic:

Both DuPont and Rohm & Haas licensed the process and began commercial production in 1936. Lucite®, however, never generated substantial earnings for DuPont. Since it was that company’s primary product, Rohm & Haas was able to commit more resources to Plexiglas® and it consistently undercut DuPont in price.

While DuPont claims poor earnings for Lucite, it’s the name we give to these beautiful vintage plastic purses.

2. Some people mistake Lucite for Bakelite. This is easy for novices to do, but once you’ve held both old plastics, you can more easily discern between the two. Deanna Dahlsad says:

[Lucite] has a slicker feel and is lighter than Bakelite. Like Bakelite, it would be rare to find a piece with mold marks or seams. Generally speaking, Lucite comes in bright colors and patterns that are not seen in Bakelite. Sometimes in darker colors it is confused with Bakelite. However, if you’ve done the Bakelite tests (and feel the piece does not have a damaged or altered finish), the piece is likely Lucite. “No smelli, Plexi” is what I say.

(Her article on identifying and caring for vintage plastics contains the referred to Bakelite tests.)

3. The most expensive Lucite purses were made by Wilardy of New York and once they were showcased in major department stores throughout the country, as a cheaper alternative to leather handbags. Some of the best Lucite purse designers were Rialto, Llewllyn, Charles S. Kahn, Gilli Originals, Patricia of Miami, Evans, and Myles & Maxim. Over time, of course, many cheaper versions, including knock-offs, were made. Most companies marked their handbag creations on the inside, with a stamp on the metal frames or by affixing a clear or paper label — but over the years many of the clear labels have fallen off, making identification & attribution difficult — both for Lucite purses by famous makers and even for identifying other makers of vintage Lucite purses.

4. There are many opaque or translucent colors of Lucite purses. While many agree the carved clear plastic is the most beautiful, it is far from practical in terms of use. Because it’s clear, you can see everything inside & most ladies prefer the contents of their handbags & clutches to be secret.

Vintage Clear Carved Lucite Purse From Iwannas

Vintage Clear Carved Lucite Purse From Iwannas

(You can see Marie Windsor displaying a clear carved Lucite purse — and the contents if it! — here.)

5. The most popular (and therefore pricey) color of vintage Lucite purses seems to be the tortoiseshell — followed closely by amber. My guess is that, along with being so pretty, the darker brown colors are more practical both in terms of keeping the purse’s contents hidden and, like brown leather, very easily mixed into one’s wardrobe.

Vintage Tortoiseshell Lucite Purse

Vintage Tortoiseshell Lucite Purse

Vintage Amber Lucite Purse

Vintage Amber Lucite Purse

Of course, the near rainbow of available colors, means fashionistas and collectors are always looking for the unusual shades, such as pearlized pastels and always-in-fashion black.

6. Vintage Lucite purses come in many shapes too. There are square & rectangular “box” styles, ovals, trapezoid, cylinders, “kidney” shapes, “beehives,” scalloped shaped “kidney” clutches… Some vintage Lucite purses will have “lids” that open, others open like “clams.” Most have Lucite handles, but some will have straps of chain or other material.

7. Along with the myriad of color choices & shapes, Lucite purses are often embellished with carvings, metal work (not just clasps, hinges & feet, but fancy filigree and woven metal work), and/or rhinestones, confetti, shells, flowers, lace, etc. embedded into or set upon it.

Vintage Cylindrical Lucite Purse With Carved Ends On Metal Feet

Vintage Cylindrical Lucite Purse With Carved Ends On Metal Feet

Tortoiseshell Lucite Purse With Open Metal Work ($96)

Tortoiseshell Lucite Purse With Open Metal Work ($96)

Vintage Clear Carved Lucite Purse With Large Rhinestones

Vintage Clear Carved Lucite Purse With Large Rhinestones

When it comes to some of the designs & themes, like this fantastic vintage Lucite purse with a poodle on it — or this wooden purse with a genie on the Lucite lid, you’ll be competing with collectors of poodles & genies.

Vintage Grey Lucite Purse With Retro Poodle

Vintage Grey Lucite Purse With Retro Poodle

Vintage Purse With Lucite Lid With Genie Design

Vintage Purse With Lucite Lid With Genie Design

8. One area of cross-collecting, and therefore pieces with higher prices, are the Lucite purses with built-in compacts. (These are my ultimate fantasy pieces.)

9. As I said, I’m very worried about damaging vintage Lucite purses. Along with cracks, of which no elegant & effective repairs are known (the glue discolors &/or muddles the old plastic), Lucite scratches rather easily. These scratches are especially noticeable on clear and lighter shades of Lucite. Use soft cloths and avoid products with abrasives when cleaning them; extra caution should be taken with tortoiseshell purses because the pattern can be muddled or removed. Novus Polish Kit: Plastic Polish & Scratch Remover is highly recommended for cleaning & minimizing scratches in Lucite. (A metal polish, such as Simichrome Polish, is recommended to clean & keep the metal hardware in good condition — just keep it confined to the metal.)

10. If you find a lovely vintage Lucite purse with a missing rhinestone or two, they can be replaced with care; Sparklz has very detailed information on how to replace missing rhinestones. You’ll have to consider if the vintage purse is worth saving in terms of price, other conditions issues — and your dexterity to make the repairs. (Do not replace/repair and then sell without disclosing that you did so!)

11. Clutches especially have metal frames which should be inspected for damages; if they are too bent to clasp properly, I’d avoid them. Likewise missing or damaged clasps, handles etc. Sure, if you search diligently enough, you can find replacement Lucite handles and metal fittings. (Some are old store stock; others are salvaged from purses too badly damaged to rescue.) Purse-onally, I’m not sure I’d try to tackle all the varying metal fittings — risking cracking the purse. But there are those who claim to be able to make such repairs. (Exercise extreme caution & investigation in these persons/companies before entrusting your vintage purse in their care; see my other vintage guides for more on evaluating professional repair services.)

12. The myth that antique shops and vintage fashion boutiques (real stores or virtual ones) price their items higher than eBay is false. The purses I found & photographed at my local antique mall were priced from $60 to just under $300 (for the torti), which when compared to eBay prices is fair if not actually lower than current auction prices (and recent past sales). Of course, prices will depend upon the conditions & attributes mentioned above. And if you’re looking for something specific or quickly for a special event, online searching will produce more options & more quickly than hunting in physical locations.

Vintage Lucite Box Purse At Antique Mall ($64.50)

Vintage Lucite Box Purse At Antique Mall ($64.50)

13. If you love the look of vintage Lucite purses, there are folks making reproductions & “vintage style” Lucite purses. These vintage styled Lucite purses (found via The DebLog) are beautiful, and if you fear using an authentic vintage purse, it’s an option…

Vintage Style (Reproduction) Pink Lucite Purse

Vintage Style (Reproduction) Pink Lucite Purse

Carved Lucite Top and Handle on Reproduction Lucite Purse

Carved Lucite Top and Handle on Reproduction Lucite Purse

The prices on the modern made Lucite purses are in the same range as their vintage inspirations; but, again, you won’t have the worry of having destroyed a potential one of a kind vintage piece. However, please note that even the new Lucite will be prone to scratches (and cracks).

For more on these fabulous vintage pieces, pre-order Carry Me: 1950’s Lucite Purses: An American Fashion by Janice Berkson.

More Thursday Thirteen participants can be found here, and here.

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25 Responses {+}
  • AD

    i love all pictures!

    13 Breath-taking Moments

  • Harriet

    Great stuff!
    Who would have thought?
    Happy Thursday!
    http://iamharriet.blogspot.com/2009/07/whoopie-thursday.html

  • she

    i.love.vintage.purses! thank you for sharing these beauties! happy tt!

  • Willa

    I love purses! yours looks all beautiful!

  • Brenda ND

    You know, I learned something. Thanks.

  • Brenda ND

    You know, I learned something. Thanks.
    Sorry, should have said good post! Waiting for the next one!

  • Pamela Kramer

    Vintage Clear Carved Lucite Purse With Large Rhinestones – This is my favorite. Very cool.

  • Bumbles

    Not being a purse girl I had never heard of these – or seen them. What works of art! I love love love the clear ones – not practical at all which is hilarious.

  • lexismonkey

    Thank you for this article, it was really informative and helpful!

  • Monique Hunter

    I have my grandmothers’s purse that has a lucite or plastic handle. It broke in one place. I want to have it repaired or replaced. Can you help me?

    Thanks.

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Hi Monique,

    I have neither repaired a handbag with a Lucite handle nor hired anyone to do so… My only suggestions are:

    1) You can buy a vintage replacement handle, but please inspect the hardware & findings to ensure you know just if it will work on your bag,

    and/or 2) some claim Lucite may be repaired, but I’ve personally never seen it done right. Maybe I’m fussy or only seen poor work… But please be cautious.

    and/or 3) please be careful when considering hiring someone to replace or repair the handle. Ask to see examples of repairs/replacements they have done, ask for references, and get all the details regarding cost, insurance, shipping etc. in writing. It may seem like a lot; but you only have one of this purse and it was your grandmothers. It is truly one of a kind!

  • Kim

    Great site, thanks so much for the info. We are cleaning out my grandmother’s home and I brought home about 20 lucite/bakelite/plastic purses along with about 50 other vintage and antique purses. This sure helps me know what to keep!

    She has lots of Wilardy – but a few of them have cracks of varying degrees. Are they worth anything? They look pretty on a shelf but you wouldn’t be able to carry them. Thanks!

  • Kim

    Oh, and is there a way to post pics here to get y’alls opinions?

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Kim, I sent you an email 🙂

    We’d love to see what you’ve got!

  • Kim

    Thanks Jaynie – sent you pics. You won’t believe the beautiful clothes that I brought home today also…..but that is for another day.

  • Denise

    I have my mother-in-laws torti…a box style. The bag seems to have bowed and the sides have separated from the back. Seems like heat would need to be used to reshape the pieces. Any advice?

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Denise, I’m sorry to say that I’ve not heard of any success with trying to reshape vintage Lucite pieces. You might try an expert in purse restoration, but I think the results would be far less than satisfactory. Since your vintage handbag has sentimental value, perhaps the best thing to do is re-purpose the bag, such as making it into a display piece holding items on your vanity.

  • JOSEPH PEPTIS

    Hello, I have several sets of what I believe are vintage lucite purse handles, I was wondering if there was a way of puting a pic on here or email you a pic, so you could tell me what I have. I have been unable to find any like them. Tks

  • joyce

    Lovely collection!! Hello there, My name is Joyce Francis I am a designer and maker of original acrylic purses. You can see my work at a shop here in New York called BLUETREE.212 369 5013. Two of my purses were featured in a book called THE POWER OF THE PURSE by Anna Johnson.
    It is so encouraging to see how many people out there love Lucite and acrylic. That pink bag is a gem.
    all the best

  • anna

    I have a collection of lucite/bakelite purses and am interested in purchasing a few more. Any suggestions? thanks

  • elizabeth

    Thanks very informative! Also, there are still finds out in the real world~just found a beautiful clear clutch for $5!!!

  • liz

    I have one that is pink and is child size have you ever seen one and what would it be worth. It has rhinestone flower on top clear top with etched flowers. Maybe not old 3″ tall and wide oval top

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Hi Liz,

    I have not seen that particular purse… I don’t do appraisals of any sort; but you could try here: http://www.wehaveyourcollectibles.com/2013/08/09/about-antique-collectible-appraisals/

  • Ann Green

    I have a purse and on the bottom is written Theresabagoo t.n Lyndhurst. It does not have handle’s otherwise in good shape. is it of any value? Thank You.

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Hi Ann,

    Missing handles are a problem… I don’t do appraisals, but you can try here: http://www.wehaveyourcollectibles.com/2013/08/09/about-antique-collectible-appraisals/

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