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Collecting Mid-Century Plastic Purses

Space Age Style Handbags Avidly Sought by Handbag Collectors


Gray Vintage Box Purse by Florida Handbags

Gray Vintage Box Purse by Florida Handbags, ca. 1950s

- Photo by Jay B. Siegel
While you may not remember these funky plastic handbags dating to the 1950s first hand, there's a good chance your grandmother does. They were the fashion forward accessory back in the day.

It’s clear the original owners of these bags had no clue collectors would one day covet these fleeting fad purses. But alas, here we are more than 60 years later, and these bags are definitely still hot collectibles after years of popularity.

Plastics as Purse Materials

It was just a matter of time until the age of plastics worked its way into the accessories market. And when it did, stylish women everywhere were reaching for Lucite bags in fanciful shapes, according to author Kate E. Dooner in her Schiffer Books title Plastic Handbags: Sculpture to Wear (now out of print but available through online booksellers).

Lucite was actually a trademarked type of plastic produced by Du Pont just before Word War II. Now, as part of a collector’s vocabulary, Lucite has become a rather general term for hard plastics produced during the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Most hard plastic handbags are made of Lucite or a similar substance. But, there are hard plastic purses crafted of Bakelite as well. The Bakelite styles usually have more Deco flair since they were produced in the 1930s. These can be even more valuable than the Lucite bags when they’re in excellent condition.

Futuristic Mid-Century Styling

One of the distinguishing factors in hard plastic purses of the ‘50s is the modern look reflecting the taste of the times. Architecture, interior design and even cars tried to capture a bit of the futuristic space age look. It’s only fitting that a purse perfect for the 1960s cartoon character Jane Jetson would spring up during this time.

These futuristic bags ranged from barrel shapes to cylinders and perfectly square boxes. Or perhaps a plastic beehive in a deep honey color very appropriate for the motif would be more your style?

Imagine carrying a purse in the shape of a birdcage with rhinestones trimming the edges and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how over the top these bags can be. In addition to rhinestones which are almost always clear on these bags, they were sometimes adorned with metal filigree clasps and hinges along with gold confetti flecks within the plastic itself.

And speaking of the plastic, the most common colors were shades of brown, gray and pearly white along with clear. Some of the clear bags were so revealing that ladies would line them with a scarf or hankie for privacy. Other bags had colored bodies and lids of clear Lucite with carved patterns to make them even fancier.

Some of the most collectible, and expensive, hard plastic purses have designer labels. Llewelyn, Gilli Originals, Rialto and Wilardy Originals are some of the names to look for when determining how desirable a bag may be. Most of these designer purses sell for more than $75 apiece and can range as high as $200-300 or more if it’s a hard to find style or unusual color in near mint condition.

Tips on Condition and Value

There are a few condition factors to keep in mind when shopping for or pricing these items. First, always check them for cracks, especially near the hinges and where handles are attached. Even though Lucite is a very durable substance, it will crack under pressure from continuous use or if it’s dropped.

Make sure the bag isn’t excessively scratched either. Everyday use of some of these hard plastic handbags left them showing quite a bit of surface wear and tear, and this most certainly diminishes the value.

Of course, you can pick up a bag showing its age for a bargain price and still enjoy owning it and you won’t have to worry about damaging it if you decide to carry it around. Some bags without a maker’s label, very common styles and purses combining woven metal along with hard plastic accents are more affordable choices as well.

There are also bags made to lesser quality standards during the late ‘50s that don’t bring high prices. These bags imitate the expensive high style purses, but don’t have the thicker plastic and hand assembled characteristics collectors look for in the best hard plastic handbags.

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