Spotlight On …

armadillo handbags!

Written by Dr. Graham Lampard

The National Leather Collection has a number of what would be considered today to be ‘grotesque’ items; an armadillo purse and a crocodile handbag which are, perhaps, not to everyone’s liking.

Today, leather is a by-product of the meat industry, and without the leather industry there would be a massive environmental problem to solve. How to get rid of the hides and skins that cannot be eaten? That said, the museum does contain a number of these historical, grotesque items from animals who were killed specifically for the skin and the look.

First among these is a recent acquisition, a vintage armadillo leather purse from the 1940s. The purse has a twist closure which opens to reveal a spacious inside with one, tiny side pocket. The flap was likely to have contained a mirror originally, and there are no straps or handles; either the purse was designed as a clutch bag or they are missing.

So, why would someone kill an armadillo for its skin? The answer probably has something to do with a cull of the animal following a plague that hit Texas in the 1920-40s. The nine-banded armadillo ventured forth from Mexico and is the only species of armadillo that occurs in North America; the other twenty or so species of dasypodidae being restricted to South and Central America. The Texas armadillo is about the size of a large cat. Before the mid-1850s the armadillo was known only along the lower Rio Grande valley. By 1880 it had extended its range across South Texas, and continued its movement northward and eastward, through most of Texas and into Louisiana and Oklahoma during the 1920s and 1930s, where they were considered a pest, and legitimate game. During the Great Depression, east Texans stocked their larders with armadillos, which they called “Hoover hogs” because of the animal’s supposed pork-like flavour and because they considered the then President, Herbert Hoover, responsible for the depression.

So, the artisan clutch bag may be the outcome of widespread hunger in a poverty pandemic.

Another similarly ‘grotesque’ item is a crocodile handbag. This may be another recent purchase, but it was likely made at the turn of the century. This bag, complete with the head and feet of the reptile, was the height of fashion during the early 1900s. The interior is made from pigskin leather.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

One of the charms of the museum is that it reflects the changes in attitudes of society; at the turn of the last century no-one would have commented on a woman possessing a handbag with a crocodile head as the main feature, although it is unclear whether carrying an armadillo purse was something that happened regularly. This kind of open acceptance of the source of the raw material is something that modern audiences are uncomfortable with. As a society, we are (for the most part) happy to eat meat or wear leather shoes as long as we are far enough removed from the source. Nowadays, luxury brands pride themselves on traceability and the responsible sourcing of their materials. They don’t try to shy away from the fact that they are using leather in their work, they do so transparently.