"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Patent Leather

Patent leather – the shiny leather of which some shoes and other items are made - allegedly does not get its name from the special leather that Seth Boyden once patented. It was said to be named after the form of footwear called pattens. Pattens were wooden soled overshoes or sandals, held on the foot by leather or cloth bands, often with a wooden sole or metal device to elevate the foot above the dirt or mud.

It is alleged that dairy maids usually wore pattens so as to avoid getting the farmyard muck into the dairy which had to be kept spotless to successfully make butter. The leather of these pattens would get greasy from the buttermilk and cream that slopped onto them and therefore became shiny. A good story but how true is anyone’s guess.

Sporting a high-gloss finish, patent leather has long been established as leather that is considered uptown and formal. The history of patent leather begins in the early 19th century and owes its invention to Seth Boyden of Newark, New Jersey. In 1818, Boyden began to investigate the possibility of creating a version of leather that was treated in such a way that the material retained its desirable qualities of protection and durability. At the same time, this new type of leather would also have an appearance that would be decidedly more dressy than work boots and similar leather goods.

Using a formula that was based on a series of treatments using layers of linseed oil-based coats, the new shiny leather began commercial production on 20 September 1819. Boyden’s efforts resulted in the production of glossy leather that quickly caught on as a complement for formal dress. Despite the dairymaids lovely pattens I suspect Seth Boyden's invention was actually what gave the leather its name.


  1. So that's what patent leather is! I always just it was just plain old leather, but apparently I was wrong.

    I grew up with a pair of "chaussures vernies" that I would wear on special occasions.