Embossing is a process of printing exotic skin patterns on various materials including pigskin, cowhide, lambskin, or vinyl. Such embossed (printed) materials are called faux, imitations or fakes. Always take time to examine your vintage bag for authenticity before paying for it. As the old saying goes, “Better safe, than sorry.”
KNOW YOUR SKINS
Since the early 1900s, the industry was able to produce faux materials to imitate the look of genuine alligator. Imitations were needed to satisfy growing demand for affordable travel bags among women before World War I. The new imitations were made from leather or vinyl printed with alligator pattern called 'alligator grain' or 'alligator finish'. The first man-made material (vinyl prototype) to substitute leather was called Keratol. It was advertised as “a new fiber that looked just like leather and was equal to it for wear.” In 1902, such vinyl 14” bags were sold by Sears for only 34 cents, right next to 'alligator grain' goat leather club bags for $1.50, and genuine alligator travel bags in comparison costing almost 4 times as much, $5.20.
In the late 1920s, a wide array of materials was manufactured to imitate various genuine skins and leathers to satisfy the increase in demand for affordable daytime accessories. Animal grain prints were often embossed on Fabrikoid (imitation leather), cowhide, goatskin, or leatherette. The common grain patterns included alligator or crocodile, ostrich, lizard, walrus, Galuchat, or shark, as advertised by Montgomery Ward catalogs.
In the 1940s, leather or vinyl imitations were plenty advertised as reptile-grained, baby gator print, lizard print, or cobra-print. Since then, many makers at some point or another produced practical, soil-proof embossed bags. Koret and Dofan sometimes marked their leather print bags as Genuine Leather, as opposed to Genuine Alligator, or Genuine Ostrich. Note that in the 1930s-1960s, many domestic brands did not mark their imitations. Fine and elegant, they were often made to look like the “real thing.” Especially common were leather print handbags by Bienen-Davis, Koret, Dofan, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Finesse produced in the late 1960s after the ban on genuine alligator skins.
The quality of vintage imitations could vary greatly depending on a maker and production date. Most fakes were easy to recognize, but some of them were very believable, such as Italian bags made from Bidente Crocodile (Cocco Bidente) in the '80s-'90s. Those looked so real they could fool even experts. That's why it is quite important to be aware of the authenticity issue to be sure that you buy only authentic vintage exotics.
Photo: Alligator-print leather evening bag by Dofan, c.1960s.