Fashion History: The Victorian Period

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England, as well as the development of the railroad, facilitated the rise of a new social class—working women—who needed a sturdy bag for travel. Such a bag—a small and rounded leather suitcase built on a strong metal frame, with a secure closure, a lock, and a key—was born in 1860.

The emerging middle class—represented by newly rich business owners, merchants, bankers, lawyers, and other professionals—started showing its wealth through luxurious possessions. Alligator travel satchels became the ultimate expression of their success and social status.

Luxurious English alligator travel cases, dating back to the second half of the 19th century, represented the top of the line. Commissioned for important clients, aristocracy and royalty, they were properly monogrammed and outfitted with full sets of vanity items and toiletries made of gilt sterling and natural tortoise, to travel in comfort and style. Crafted with utmost care of splendidly pliable skins and lined in velvet, moiré or leather, those remarkable antique pieces in excellent condition are extremely rare and can sell at auctions for up to $3,000.

By the turn of the 20th century, alligator daytime handbags were widely sold in smaller specialty shops throughout America. Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs were offering a good selection of Victorian alligator, “alligator grained” lady’s purses and Gladstone bags for 48-hour delivery anywhere in the country. In 1902, a new material—keratol—was introduced as a substitute for leather, widely used for embossing.

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