I can never understand why women these days are prepared to pay several thousand pounds for a high fashion handbag only to see thousands of other women with the same bag, when for a few hundred pounds they could have the most beautiful vintage novelty handbag. You could arrive at a party as a total stranger, but carry a 1950s vintage novelty handbag you would soon have lots of people to talk to. While nowadays the handbag is carried as a status symbol to flaunt your wealth the vintage novelty handbag expressed your personality. There was such a wealth of choice which meant that there was really a handbag to suit everyone.
The golden age of the novelty handbag was the 1950s and America lead the way. During the austerity of World War II fashion had to be functional rather than fun, but once it was over there was a demand for glamour and fun and the handbag designers did not disappoint. While French designers gave us the classic handbags from Hermes and Chanel American designers really let rip and their handbags were fabulous and great fun. They would make bags to match a particular flowery dress or, if you were going on vacation to the seaside, there would be bags decorated with shells and fish. Little wicker baskets were a favourite for the summer and if you are a collector of vintage novelty handbags you should look out for a Nantucket Lightship basket. They were handwoven in Massachusetts and are a great favourite with collectors. Prices depend on condition and on whether they are plain or decorated. You should expect to pay from £60 upwards -prices increase the better the condition and the more highly decorated they are.
If you like your novelty handbag a bit wacky you should look out for one of the bags made by Midas of Miami. They made bags adorned with vegetables such as pea pods, cabbage and asparagus. The theme that summed up 1950s America was the poodle and there were many companies who made poodle bags. You can find poodle novelty handbags in a variety of materials and a beaded poodle bag in good condition would cost around £200 and the price would rise according to how outrageous the design was. A white beaded Walborg bag in the shape of a poodle with a matching beaded puppy coin purse sold at auction in New York in 2000 for $2000.
When it comes to the 1950s novelty handbags America gave us the ultimate in ‘cool’, namely the Lucite handbag. It was in the shape of a rigid box and was made by a large number of companies mainly in New York and Miami. There was a huge variety of Lucite bags from simple plain squares to amazing novelty designs decorated with glitter and rhinestones – the most famous is probably the beehive bag which was designed by Llewellyn of New York in 1951 and, if you are lucky to find one in good condition, it would cost you quite a lot of money. Even in the 1950s a Lucite bag would have cost more than a week’s wages. You can often find Lucite bags at antique and collectors’ fairs and you should be able to get one for between £100 – £200, although the more unusual and highly decorated Lucite handbags would cost more than £1000.
As you can imagine the Lucite bag was a fashion accessory for the wealthy but as we got into the 1950s low-priced alternatives hit the shops. Rialto produced a machine moulded Lucite bag which retailed at $1.98 and this was the beginning of the end for the very expensive bags. As we got into the 1960s the ‘look’ changed and the young girls did not want to look like their mothers and so the high heels and matching bags were replaced by the mini skirt and boots.
Collecting vintage novelty handbags is great fun. For a moment it throws you into another world where elegance ruled and women’s clothes and handbags looked amazing. That probably explains the success of TV series Madmen in the US and the recent The Hour in the UK. There will probably be another run on vintage dresses and novelty handbags this autumn.