Leather Goods And Luggage

( Originally Published 1931 )

THE uses of leather and of imitation leathers are varied, including upholstery, sports apparel, gloves, and shoes, as well as luggage and women's handbags.

Real leather is produced by the tanning of animal hides and its serviceability depends upon the quality of the hide and the skill and thoroughness of the tanning processes; but in the present race for novelties, creatures that fly, crawl, and swim are made to pay their tribute as well. In addition, special processes have been developed for making leather substitutes out of vegetable matter.

The basic sturdiness of leather is derived from the length, strength, and interlacement of the fibers in the natural skin. Cowhide, calfskin, pigskin, horsehide (generally marketed as mustang or rawhide), sealskin, goatskin, and sheepskin are the most usual leathers with cowhide and pigskin most highly prized for their toughness and general utility. These may be said to form the original leather group; to them have been added the skins of ostriches, lizards, alligators, snakes, sharks, and what not. In the field of substitutes the most common is a product marketed under the trade name of Fabrikoid.

Tanning is the process of curing the raw skin for use as leather and is broadly divided between those processes using a vegetable agent and those involving mineral treatment. Oak-bark tanning is illustrative of the former type and chrome leather of the latter. Chrome-tanned leather is washable. In either case it is important to judge the thoroughness of the tanning operation, which should remove all of the animal gelatin present in the rawhide; for incomplete tannage is all too prevalent among leather products. A ready test is to watch the effect of a drop of water on the hair side of leather, for if the drop is quickly absorbed the leather has not been well tanned.

The greatest difficulty facing the shopper in selecting leather goods is the practice of splitting skins. This means the separation of the top grain, or outer hair side, from the flesh side of the skin, thus making a single hide produce double its area in leather. Naturally, this practice makes for thinner leather, which is consequently weaker and less durable; but the import-ant point is that the outer or protective surface of a skin is considerably tougher than the flesh side. It is known as top grain. A split skin is the market name for the inferior half; it is often painted or enameled, or is even specially processed to imitate other leathers. In any event it is a weak product and the shopper who selects a painted split skin for its smoothness and shininess in preference to a top grain which is rougher and may have some scratches on its surface, will shortly have reason to regret her misunderstanding of the true situation. Black or colored leather suitcases, hat boxes, handbags, and the like are often split skin and should not be bought as first-grade products unless the shopper has first established the fact that the leather is top grain. As soon as this distinction is understood the shopper will in turn understand why certain leather goods seem so much cheaper than others of apparently comparable grade.

Color may be applied to leather in two ways: painting or dyeing. The latter is the more expensive of the two. A pigment color comes off if the surface is rubbed with a rag or handkerchief, while a color which has been applied by dyeing process penetrates the fibers more thoroughly and hence does not rub off readily.

Cowhide may be said to be the standard leather for luggage, and calfskin for women's handbags and purses. In many cases these leathers are specially processed or "grained" to imitate reptile or such other fancy leathers as may be enjoying a vogue; or they may be painted, buffed, enameled, or otherwise specially treated as in the production of patent leather. In all these cases the product may be as sturdy and of as good appearance as the leather imitated provided natural or top grain skins have been used. In many cases a split skin is used and the durability of the product is seriously impaired.


Cowhide is strong, dependable, and reasonably priced. Frequently, however, luggage sold as cowhide is nothing but split skin, and this is particularly true where the leather has been painted. Many women shoppers select black or colored luggage because it has a smooth surface and will not soil easily; points which these shoppers wrongly consider as factors making for durability. At the same time they are quick to detect and object to scratches on a, bag of natural leather. Of course, the truth of the matter is that paint can cover a multitude of imperfections in a split skin whereas the scratches on natural leather (generally due to the cow's having brushed against a barbed-wire fence) do not affect durability and are good indications that the leather is top grain.

In some cases efforts are made to make split skins look like top grain by painting them russet, but the paint can be detected on close examination and should serve as a danger signal to the shopper.

Calfskin is only less sturdy and dependable than cowhide and is also reasonably priced. Because calf-skin takes a high polish it is extensively used in making enameled and patent leathers, which are described below.

Russian calf is produced by spraying birch oil on the grain side of the calfskin.

Pigskin is tough, flexible leather of a handsome light color. It is of two kinds : that of the Mexican hog, which is washable because chrome-tanned, and that from Austria and Scotland. These grow dark with wear, a seasoning which is part of their charm. The so-called pigskin used for linings is often nothing but embossed sheepskin, which is inferior imitation. The most outstanding characteristic of pigskin are the minute pinholes seen on the surface, which serve as the roots for its coarse hair.

Sealskin can be distinguished from imitations by the decidedly fishy smell which it never loses. It makes a strong and compact leather and is generally finer on the grain or hair side. The seal from which it is taken has a much coarser coat than the Alaskan fur seal; where the skin has an especially coarse grain it is known as Levant seal.

Pin seal has a minute, pebbly grain and may be dull or glazed in finish. It is vegetable-tanned and not so durable as calf.

Mustang (horse) is a coarse-grain leather. It is very durable and is obtainable in pigment finishes in several colors.

Goatskin is a soft, pliable leather with interlacing rather than parallel rows of fibers.

Kid, often used in gloves, is soft, flexible, of fine grain and very thin.

Morocco, if real, is clear in color, elastic, and soft yet firm and fine in grain and texture. It originated on the Mediterranean coast, where the leather was made by tanning goatskin with sumac. The appearance of morocco can, however, be produced on any thin leather and what is sold as morocco is usually either goatskin of any vegetable tannage, or hair seal.

Antelope, or deer, is usually imitated in suèded calf, goat, or split calf. It does not wear well.

Ostrich has a knotty or nubby surface produced by pulling the quills from the bird. The skin takes dyes well but quickly darkens with wear.

Alligator, the most common of the reptile skins, makes a fine, tough, close fibered leather with a scaly surface which can be distinguished from imitations by the fact that the edges of the scales on the genuine leather are slightly undercut.

Lizard has diamond shaped, scalelike sections which, however, are not really scales but produce a fine, regular grain.

Snake skin is finished by a process which is a secret with certain European manufacturers. Its status among the leathers is solely that of a novelty.

Shark skin resembles tanned parchment with an artificial, embossed grain. Like lizard and snake, it is purely a novelty leather.

Suède is the result of buffing a skin on an emery wheel. Leather having an imperfect grain side is generally used, as the outer layer of skin is removed by the buffing. Suède is popular but is not durable.

Enameled leather is produced by processing the grain side of a skin; while patent leather is the result of varnishing either the flesh side or a split skin. Either product is liable to crack with wear because the leather expands more readily than the surface layer of varnish. Calfskin is the usual basis of these specially processed leathers.

So much for the individual types of skins. The shopper may expect to find them all represented in products of any one price range for the reason that it is the quality, rather than the kind, of skin used, which controls the price.


In the smaller units, luggage is chiefly dependent for its strength and wear upon the leather used; but as the size increases through men's suitcases to the various types and sizes of trunks, the nature of the frame-work and the type of hardware become increasingly important.

We have seen that top-grain cowhide is standard and that the painting or processing of the leather is often used as a blind to hide inferior split skins. In selecting luggage we should also seek to determine the actual thickness of the leather used, for many a bag and suitcase on the market is composed of paper which is veneered on the outside with a thin skin of leather and on the inside with a cloth lining.

Because leather is expensive, substitutes for it are frequently used in parts of luggage where the shopper is not apt to notice them, but where a large part of the wear and strain come in the opening and closing and the packing and unpacking of the case. The most common substitute is Fabrikoid, a waterproof material such as is used to cover card tables. If the shopper has a fine sense of touch, she may be able to distinguish the less lively feel of the fabric; but in any event she should make definite inquiries as to whether substitutes have been used and, if so, exactly where. Then, if the case does not wear well on the edges or in other parts where a durable leather should have been used, she will be justified in returning her purchase and expecting a refund.


Though leather is the basis of the better grades, bags and suitcases also require steel or wood for the framework; iron, brass, or nickel for the hinges, locks, etc.; fiber, pasteboard or wood for the foundation; and leather or some textile for the linings and interlinings.

Framework : Bags and men's suitcases are generally framed with steel, which is heavy but slightly elastic and therefore well adapted to withstand hard service. On the other hand, wood is used to frame women's cases because it is lighter. The fact that wood is more rigid than steel and will break more easily is discounted by the fact that women's cases are not so subject to hard usage as are men's. Basswood is the best because it is both light and tough.

Of course there are on the market suitcases for both men and women, which have in them neither steel nor wood but depend on their foundation of fiber or pasteboard for such rigidity and structural strength as they have. At a fair price they will give fair value, but they are not to be confused with well-framed cases.

Foundation: In addition to the framework many types of hand luggage have a foundation or backing for the leather covering. In the case of flexible bags, this backing is a heavy canvas in the better products and felt in the inferior ones. The more rigid suitcases require a stiffer foundation, which is wood or fiber in the best grades and cardboard in the poorer ones. The easiest test of the type of foundation is to rap on the body of the case. The sound will be clear if wood or fiber has been used; muffled if the backing is of cardboard.

Lining and Stitching: Leather linings are durable and attractive but stain easily. Sheepskin, being light, flexible, and comparatively inexpensive, is one of the best lining leathers; but the shopper should not pay pigskin prices for it simply because the sheepskin has been embossed to imitate pigskin. Because of the reversal in comparative costs during recent years, silk or rayon is largely replacing leather in linings. Moiré, or watered silk, is preferred for this purpose. Checked Irish linen is appropriate for bags which are likely to have hard wear. A heavy satin-lined twill of mercerized cotton also makes an excellent lining.

Bags are either machine- or hand-sewn. The features of hand sewing are that the thread can be waxed and a lock stitch can be used, these features making for durability and for a more finished appearance.

In many of the better grade bags a folded strip of leather called a welt is sewed between the two larger pieces to give the seam strength and a finish.

The shopper should also notice the straps. The bet-ter straps are all in one piece; the others are of two pieces stitched together on the edges. The latter do not wear well because the under piece is usually of split leather, and because the sewing at the point of the strap is apt to wear and make it difficult to insert the strap in the buckle.

Reenforcing the corners gives added strength and wear to a bag. This is usually done by cutting and shaping small pieces of leather to fit over the outside corners, although a method of reënforcing from the inside has been developed for bags having no corner seams.

In suitcases the round edges are of two kinds. The better type ("full round") are round by construction and are well reënforced in the corners; whereas the so-called "semi-round" are square but are pared to give a rounded effect.

Hardware : Hinges, clasps, and locks are important factors in the efficiency of luggage. Iron, brass, and nickel are the metals commonly used, and the preference is naturally for one of the last two, as these do not rust. Hinges should be sufficiently large and well secured to meet the strain to which they will be put, and they also should be protected from direct impact in the rough handling to which luggage is liable. Clasps and locks should be of a simple type which will work easily and surely.


Trunks are subject to the most punishing tests of their ruggedness and durability, and it is bad economy to get so cheap a trunk that it cannot possibly contain the materials and workmanship essential to service. Leather as a factor in trunk-making is playing an increasingly minor rôle, and there are many excellent products in this type of heavy luggage, where the only leather used is in the end straps.

Construction: Trunk construction generally recognized as standard consists of three layers of basswood covered on both outside and inside with a layer of hard vulcanized fiber. As in plywood construction for furniture, the layers of wood are laid with their grain running in alternate directions. The vulcanized fiber is compressed wood pulp. With the exception of a cord duck used only in the most expensive trunks, this special fiber is the strongest covering which has been discovered for the purpose.

Because this five-layer (known as five-ply) construction is recognized as standard, many reliable manufacturers and merchants advertise the five-ply trunk as the height of excellence and educate shoppers to insist on the five-ply. This is dangerous education because it diverts the shopper from what should be her paramount consideration; that is, the nature of the materials which go into those layers. Five-ply can mean three layers of basswood and external layers of hard vulcanized fiber, or it can mean three layers of some inferior wood with an outer coating of soft fiber and an inner layer of cardboard. In both cases the count is five, but in the first instance it means satisfaction and in the second it means speedy disillusionment. This is a striking illustration of the fact that there are no short cuts to intelligence in shopping; the shopper must always search through to the basic materials as well as the workmanship if she wishes to know what she is buying.

Although basswood is the best for trunks, as it is for hand luggage, white pine and poplar are also used. All three woods are light, dry, and resistant and will not warp. Yellow pine has a great deal of sap, is softer, and will not hold nails as well as the other woods.

Linings : Trunk linings are either of paper or of cloth, paper being used only in the cheaper trunks such as camp trunks. Cotton or linen linings are good, but Fabrikoid is the best, as it is strong and easily cleaned.

Hardware: Here are factors of efficiency, which are even more important than in the case of the lighter hand luggage. All hinges should be secured on the inside by washers. All rivets should be clinched, for otherwise they will soon loosen and drop out and the trunk will come to pieces. By rubbing the hand on the inside of a trunk, one will feel clinched rivets readily through the lining. By examining the lock when the trunk is unlocked, it is easy to tell the good lock from the inferior ones. The difference is that the good one is cast in a mold and is thick, whereas the cheaper ones are hollow and may easily be bent.

Wardrobe Trunks: This type of trunk must have its interior fittings custom-built if it is to be really satisfactory; for any undue play in the fit of the drawers will damage the whole tier as well as the contents. The drawer should be made of basswood and not of cardboard or any soft fiber.

To pack a wardrobe trunk properly, take care to distribute the load and bulk of clothing evenly, so that when the retainer is put in place the strain on one part of the garments and hangers will not be greater than on the others. This prevents breakage of the hanger and wrinkling of the clothes and gives more space. The chief reason for hanger breakage is the use of the so-called "princess" or "anchor" type of hanger. The princess hanger permits stretching. The only safe, and the most simple, way to pack frail apparel is to drape the garment across the top of an ordinary hanger or straight-bar hanger, leaving it to hang perfectly free on both sides.


The last few years have witnessed a complete revolution in the status of the hangbag. Time was when it was considered a necessity which should be hidden as much as possible; now it is paraded as a charming accessory, and the well-dressed woman keeps on hand a variety to answer the needs of various occasions and costumes. In this new status good taste and novelty are more important than practicability, although the intelligent shopper will expect to get value in making her selections. Calfskin remains the predominant leather, even though it frequently makes concessions by being grained or processed to look like some exotic skin which happens to enjoy a vogue.

Seal, goat, kid, morocco, pig, antelope, ostrich, alligator, lizard, snake, and shark are some of the skins used in making handbags and purses. They were briefly described earlier in this chapter, and it is there-fore necessary here only to reiterate that the most important thing for the shopper to watch is the all too common attempt to palm off inferior split skins as the best leather. Cloth fabrics are sometimes used in place of leather, but they do not wear as well.

Other fabrics are made to imitate leathers and are used in parts of the bag not likely to be examined by the purchaser. Although these imitations, such as Fabrikoid or leatherette, do not wear as well as leather, they are used on the sides between the folds and in other places where a great deal of wear comes. The shopper should examine all of the bag, making sure that the leather is of uniform quality.

Linings : The lining of the handbag is almost as important as the outer leather, for it is subjected to constant wear and strain. A bag may be lined with leather, which is durable but clumsy, or with silk, rayon, cotton, or wool. The most common lining is silk, particularly brocades, taffetas, moirés, and satins. Brocade has a lovely embossed appearance and wears very well, as does a good quality satin. Taffeta tends to split if heavily weighted, as is frequently the case, and the watered finish of moiré is quickly destroyed if steamed or wet. Cotton is used only to line the cheaper bags and wool is seldom used as a lining, but both wear well.

Frames : The shopper is likely to pay little attention to the frame of a handbag; yet if the frame be poorly constructed it will warp or break under the strain and the bag become of little use, no matter how good the leather.

Materials used for frames and their relative merits are as follows: solid gold, excellent but expensive; gold-filled, tarnishes and gold wears off; sterling silver, good, easily polished when tarnished; silver plate, turns color easily and does not polish well; gun metal; tortoise shell (celluloid which is made to imitate tortoise shell can be distinguished from the genuine by the test given under Novelty Jewelry) ; and wooden or metal frames covered with the same material as the bag itself. The shopper should notice not only the construction and material of the frame itself but whether or not it is securely attached to the body of the bag. Frequently the cement or other means of attachment is not lasting and the bag falls away from the frame.

Clasps: The shopper should try opening and closing the bag before purchasing it to make sure that the clasp is all right. The clasp must open easily but it must also stay closed until opened deliberately. The flat clasp is, generally speaking, safer than the ornamental knob. The average bag should not be closed from the ends, since that is likely to spring the clasp. It should be closed by pressing the clasp itself between the thumb and forefinger.

Because a handbag is not a standardized piece of merchandise it may be advertised as having been reduced from a fictitiously large sum when actually it has never been worth any more than or as much as its advertised sale price. Stores are continually having sales of handbags, which the shopper should realize are, nine times out of ten, not reductions at all because the merchandise was bought to sell at that price.

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