When military production ended after World War II, American plastics manufacturers cashed in on their technology, using leftover materials to create something really explosive -- a fashion boom from Broadway to Burbank. Style-conscious women in the 1950s craved the "New Look" of heavy, hard-edged, and whimsically eccentric plastic pocketbooks, lugging around those clunkers for a decade until soft vinyl liberated them in the '60s.
Thousands of passe plastic pocketbooks were sent to attics and Goodwill stores across America and are re-emerging now as collectibles. Thanks to dealers and die-hards who see class and cash in those bags, leftover plastic is exploding again.
"They were fun accessories when they were made and they're fun to collect now," New Yorker Jane Wyeth says. "They make my friends laugh. They may not be serious art forms but they are good looking and as '50s as rock 'n' roll." A serious Americana collector and formerly a vice president of Sotheby's auction house, Ms. Wyeth is agent for her brother-in-law, painter Jamie Wyeth. She's not the sort of lady one might imagine decorating her drawing room with old bags. But, even for art connoisseurs like Jane Wyeth, collecting good American design takes various forms.
She is not alone. Robert Gottlieb, departing editor of the New Yorker, a magazine many of whose readers proudly personify the American cultural elite, installed a collection of over 500 plastic pocketbooks on floor-to-ceiling glass shelves in his bedroom. "It's an amazing environment," says New York folk art dealer Frank Maresca, who co-authored with Mr. Gottlieb "A Certain Style: The Art of The Plastic Handbag, 1949-59," (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) and who sold him many bags.
The pursuit of plastic purses isn't just a quirky New York phenomena. New Albany, Ind., not far from the Kentucky border, is a prime pocketbook-collecting community. Carol Swope has a funky handbag on every step of the staircase in her New Albany house and has arranged them as centerpieces at PTA luncheons. They're not just for display. Ms. Swope, a dealer, uses them regularly and about 500 of her pocketbooks have been picked by collectors nationwide.
Prices are rising
Savvy thrift shop and flea markets shoppers who stocked up on pocketbooks back in the '70s, when they generally fetched $20 or less, have profited as prices have surged. Ms. Swope started selling them in 1985 at prices ranging from $180 to $350, depending on design. At one recent antiques show, she sold a red and black cylinder-shaped plastic pocketbook for $650; a butterscotch-colored one shaped like a lunch pail was purchased by an Italian dealer for $500. The taste is clearly international, with dealers from France, Germany and Japan searching the United States for bags to satisfy collectors' cravings back home. Dealers say most of their customers buy them to use, but others like them as novel table-top sculptures.
At the huge "Atlantique City," N.J., antiques show in March, Larry Campbell, a dealer from Greenwich, Conn., offered about 50 bags including two large, heavy, gun-metal gray ones priced at $650 and $850. "I've taken plastic pocketbooks to a new price level," Mr. Campbell boasted. He used to sell mainly plastic radios until he discovered handbags last year.
Fifties plastic pocketbooks have direct ancestors in the 1920s and '30s, when Bakelite, horn and tortoise shell were used before acrylics and acetates came into their own. After World War II, as plastics manufacturers looked for markets, they began supplying handbag makers with handles, frames, zipper pulls and clasps. Before long, plastic was used for the entire bag, according to Mr. Maresca. When new, the pocketbooks generally sold for $1.98 to $50, and Mr. Gottlieb writes that the widespread popularity of inexpensive models reduced the demand for the costliest ones.
Rialto, Llewellyn, Wilardy, Myles, Maxim, Charles S. Kahn, Gilli Originals, Florida Handbags and Patricia of Miami are some of the manufacturers whose names are stamped on the hinges or plastic labels of '50s pocketbooks and fill a historical essay and captions to 92 splendid color photographs in Mr. Gottlieb and Mr. Maresca's book.
The variety of plastic pocketbook shapes, sizes and decorations is astounding. They are oval and boxy, trapezoids and pyramids. Some look like ice buckets, Chinese pagodas, beehives, tool boxes or camera cases. A gray metallic one shaped like a coffin has fake flowers under its clear Lucite dome. Some are tinted navy blue, green, pink, black, red, amber, gold or silver. Others simulate tortoise shell, figured wood, marble or mother of pearl. Flashy bags are encrusted with rhinestones, mirrors or bands of metal filigree. Many have vines and flowers etched on their Lucite lids or are carved all over with geometric patterns resembling cut glass.