SPECIAL POST: Plasticflex Handbags, R. Appel Factory and Inventor Florence Kuhlman

Plasticflex box bag, from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

SPECIAL POST: The Vintage Purse Museum is delighted to present historical information about             R. Appel, owner of The Ithaca Pocketbook Factory, inventor Florence Kuhlman and Plasticflex purses. (Photos and information, except where noted, c2020 by The Vintage Purse Museum/Wendy Dager.)

Original Plasticflex brochure (front view), from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Original Plasticflex brochure (inside), from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum. 
Plasticflex handbags were made from approximately 1941-1959.

The Ithaca, New York “Pocketbook Factory,” as R. Appel’s business was known, operated from 1935 until about 1960, and employed hundreds of local workers at its peak. While it started as a leather goods manufacturer, the most popular product made by Appel (pronounced “apple”) was a handbag constructed of plastic tiles and available in a variety of colors and styles under the Plasticflex label, with a bright red apple as its logo.

Plasticflex label with patent number and red apple logo. From the collection of
The Vintage Purse Museum.

Rubin Epel was born in 1889 in Russia to Bluma and Saul Epel, who had six other children. According to the manifest of the S.S. Pennsylvania, the family left from the Port of Hamburg, Germany and arrived at New York’s Ellis Island in 1904. The manifest says they were there to join Bluma’s brother-in-law—her sister Rosie’s husband, Wolf Brautmann (later Americanized to William Brotman). Rubin, 15 at the time, eventually became known as R. Robert Appel—favoring the name Robert or just the initial “R.” In 1912, he married Wolf and Rosie’s daughter Eva Brotman, born in 1891.

Eva and R. Robert Appel, 1935. Photo clipped via Newspapers.com.

According to the 1930 census, the couple lived with their son Sol (b. 1929-d. 2011), then an infant, in Brooklyn, New York. Robert, as his name appears on the record, was owner of a leather goods company, and Eva was a housewife. (A 1940 article about Appel said he had been in the handbag manufacturing business since 1924.) By the 1940 census, the family was living at 25 Central Park West (now The Century Condominium, a NYC historic landmark). While the relative we spoke with does not remember Sol (sometimes spelled “Saul”) working for his father, we found address directories from 1951 and 1952 indicating that young Sol, using his middle name Bernard, was employed by his father’s company, living and working in Ithaca. 

In 1935, Mr. and Mrs. Appel were welcomed to the city of Ithaca as a leather goods manufacturer that would employ 150-200 people at their leased 10,000 square feet of space on the top floor of the Morse Chain Company building. The Appels’ company was known at that time as Ithaca Leather Products Co. The couple, who had initially done a trial run of the business in a smaller location, said they would adhere to the “now-defunct NRA code*,” with a 40-hour work week and fair pay. (*1933 National Recovery Administration code that required different industries to have specific wages and work hours; overturned in 1935 as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, but still honored by some businesses, including handbag manufacturing.) In the 1937 directory, the business was listed as R. Appel, under the category “handbags,” with a home address in Ithaca, possibly the Appels' residence.

Among their employees was Oscar “Ozzie” Swenson, who managed the factory until its closure. Ithaca historians cite Mr. Swenson as someone who went out of his way to help other citizens of Ithaca, particularly those affected by The Depression, by getting them jobs at the factory.

By 1940, the R. Appel factory had outgrown its space and was making up to 2,000 bags per day and grossing $900,000 per year. A newspaper article stated that sole proprietor Appel and his wife, in charge of finance, employed only Ithacans, and had nine traveling salesmen to support the company’s 5,000 clients. The new handbag factory building would share property (owned by Ithaca Enterprises, Inc.) with Therm-Electric Meters. In local lore, Appel’s business was known as the “Ithaca Pocketbook Factory,” so well-established to area residents that help-wanted ads only showed it as being on Pearsall Place—with no street number** ever mentioned. (**Thanks to The History Center in Tompkins County and Tompkins County Public Library database, old address directories show there never was a street number for the Pocketbook Factory on Pearsall Place. It was decades later, after the factory’s closure, that an address on an adjacent street was designated to the property.)
1941 Ithaca Numerical Street Directory reference, from the database of
the Tompkins County Public Library.

In December 1941, the US entered the war, creating shortages of materials including leather. While leather handbags were not rationed to American citizens—although the purchase of leather shoes required ration coupons—handbag makers’ supplies had diminished. This is when manufacturers started getting creative with their raw materials.

It’s possible that Appel anticipated shortages when he enlisted the design services of inventor Florence Kuhlman, with the pair jointly submitting a patent request on March 28, 1941 for a “decorative material of the type which may be employed for covering handbags, belts, and other accessory articles of apparel.” Patent number 2,256,645 was approved September 23, 1941. 

Florence Kuhlman's patent. Screenshot taken from Google patents.

And so was born the “frameless” handbag made of “long-wearing…highly attractive…inexpensive to manufacture…units of plastic compound” bound by a “transverse series of interlaced tapes.” The tapes were leather lacings, and the Lego-like tiles were known as “plaques.” They were also occasionally referred to as “buttons.”

Patent number 2,256,645 is the one that appears on the labels in Plasticflex bags, but Florence Kuhlman and her assignee, Robert Appel (his name is not shown on the drawing below, but it is in the documentation that accompanied it) had an earlier patent for a similar design, 121,439, approved July 9, 1940.

Earlier patent by Florence Kuhlman. Screenshot taken from Google patents.

Appel most likely didn’t know how popular this easy-to-clean cellulose-acetate bag would become in the 1940s, and again in the 2000s, with collectors snapping them up for their iconic style, tactility and durability.

Red Plasticflex clutch. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Florence Kuhlman was born in Ohio in 1893. According to the 1920 census, she was an assistant buyer at a dry goods company there, while living with her mother and three of her four siblings. There is evidence that she may have been a leather goods buyer for Kaufmann’s department store (est. 1871) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1926. Her Pennsylvania connection is also evident in the July 1925 record of 32-year-old Florence Kuhlman traveling on the RMS Aquitania from Southampton, England to the port of New York on her way to Pittsburgh's William Penn Hotel (then the “grandest hotel in the nation”). One can only speculate as to her plans. Perhaps she was a temporary resident of the hotel. Or, she may have booked a pleasure cruise to Europe in 1925 and was staying in the hotel prior to starting her job at Kaufmann's. According to her relative, as well as further documentation on a genealogy website, she made a number of trips via ship to Europe. 

It is possible that she met R. Appel after her move to New York, perhaps at a handbag manufacturing company or department store, via dealings with his leather goods company in the city. There’s a significant gap in details about Florence Kuhlman from 1926 until 1940, although there is some evidence she returned to Ohio in the early 1930s. According to the 1940 census, she was a handbag designer living in New York’s Murray Hill neighborhood on 20 E. 35th Street (known as the Goodhue House, built in 1937), with her younger sister Irene, who had been widowed in 1938. 

When Florence Kuhlman invented what was to become the Plasticflex handbag, she had a contract with R. Appel for one percent of its sales. Per an online legal document discovered by The Vintage Purse Museum, net sales of this style of purse had reached a whopping $15,000,000 by 1947. There was some dispute between the business partners over royalties, and it remains unclear what the outcome was, but it appears there was a settlement. In the documentation found by The Vintage Purse Museum, there was mention that Appel had licensed other companies to use this design. One licensee of Appel was the Royal Bead Novelty Co., which made Plasti-Square, a Plasticflex lookalike (photo of Plasti-Square bags at bottom of this post). Louis and Lillian Detkin, owners of Royal Bead Novelty Co., also created jewelry, including the popular Laguna bead line. 

Other companies (or sub-brands of companies) that made similar handbags were Jolles, Weitz Plastics/Plastic-Mesh (Robbins & Weitz), Park Lane, Tony Gay, Art-Flex, Frilo and Jorue, but it is unclear if Appel licensed the design to any of them. The Friedman-Lobel company manufactured Jorue bags, labeled with patent number 2,318,694 (some labels are misprinted with 2,319,694), invented in 1943 by Ludwig Kaphan, who went on to receive patents for similar materials. Weitz Plastics used this same patent number, and Frilo (also a Friedman-Lobel line) used a different patent number (too difficult to discern the number on the two Frilo bags in The Vintage Purse Museum collection). Most of the Plasticflex-style bags made by companies other than R. Appel have slight variations in the plaques, in size or shape or both.

Pair of original photographs featuring women with two styles of plastic-tile handbags.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

In 1945, Appel attempted, through legal means, to stop an individual*** from making a similar purse, citing patent infringement, but the motion was denied. This might explain why he engaged in what may have been a sort of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy, and decided to license Kuhlman’s invention. (***We are not naming the individual here for privacy reasons; however, on a genealogy website there is a photo of him with a woman who appears to be carrying a plastic tile clutch. We believe handbags were not his primary business, and the individual’s obituary says that he was a “pioneer of the plastic industry.”)

Kuhlman continued to design handbags, including the Slide-Sac, a sailcloth bag that could slide off its frame for easy washing, for which she received a patent in 1948. An Ohio newspaper advertisement for this purse mentions her by name, perhaps because she was a native Ohioan. The Vintage Purse Museum believes that Florence Kuhlman passed away at the age of 82 in 1974 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her sister Irene, with whom she lived, died two years later, also age 82.

Over nearly 25 years, the R. Appel factory was the subject of several articles in the Ithaca Journal newspaper, including a splashy advertorial in 1945, featuring photos of Plasticflex handbags of all shapes and sizes, and the workers who made them.

The Ithaca Journal, Nov. 27, 1945
The Ithaca Journal, Nov. 27, 1945, clipped via Newspapers.com.
According to a 1992 Ithaca Journal article headlined “Plasticflex – A Fashion Disaster”—with the Dewitt Historical Society providing information—Appel opened a second factory on the corner of Buffalo and Meadow. (The article captions the accompanying photo of handbags as “UG-LY,” with which we at The Vintage Purse Museum respectfully disagree.) There is a brick building visible on Internet street maps that may have once been this factory. The article also states that the workers, who were mostly women, did not like making Plasticflex handbags because “methods for threading the squares with cords on a board caused them to get blisters or poke themselves with the long weaving needles.”

In 1952, the City of Ithaca relocated a portion of road to give better access to Therm Electric Meters Company Inc., which was “westerly of the plant of R. Appel, Inc.” This was a portent of what was to come just seven years later. 

By October 1959, the factory was down to 44 workers. The price of leather had gone up, steel to make purse frames was hard to come by because of a labor strike, and imported fabrics were hurting the US handbag industry. That November, the R. Appel company sold some of its real estate to Therm, Inc. (still in existence at the same location). No purchase price was reported for the one acre of land and 10,000 square feet of buildings sold via a lease-back arrangement, and Appel still planned to operate his handbag factory. Per a very nice person who answered us on Therm’s Facebook page after asking its owner about this for us: “Therm was incorporated in 1935 and the manufacturing facility was built on the land above the pocketbook factory in 1937. When the pocketbook factory closed in 1959 it made sense for Therm to purchase their 2 buildings to complete their land holdings. The 2 original buildings are still in use. One is used for storage and training. The other is a carpentry shop. Something cool to note is that the building we use for training still has the original floors. Sometimes old buttons and notions from the pocketbook factory are found in the crevices.”

Despite the declaration that it would keep making handbags, R. Appel Inc. closed its doors for good in 1960, which would be the last time the business was listed in the local address directory. There were no further articles about the Pocketbook Factory in the Ithaca Journal newspaper (other than historical articles many years later), and the word Plasticflex (also Plastic-Flex) went on to be used in advertisements for products such as girdles, mops, chairs and ice cube trays.

The Appels retired to their home on Autumn Road in Lakewood Township, New Jersey. The Vintage Purse Museum is not entirely certain when Eva passed away as there are several people with the same name in the genealogy records, but we believe Robert died in 1970.

The collaboration between Florence Kuhlman and Rubin “Robert” Appel was not without its difficulties, yet their product certainly helped a town's economy and contributed to its history. What remains is an appreciation of integral parts of an extraordinary process—inventor, businessman, hardworking Ithacans—creating an innovative handbag fashion that continues to defy time.

The information in this post was gleaned from newspaper advertisements and articles, as well as a genealogical website and historical documents. We located a relative of R. Appel and they were extraordinarily nice when we conversed via telephone, but asked not to be identified. Whenever we write articles about handbag manufacturers for our website, we respect the privacy of the people with whom we speak. The relative was very young when R. Appel closed his business, so they were unable to give us any information about the company, but they remember Mr. and Mrs. Appel as warm and loving. We also located a relative of Plasticflex inventor Florence Kuhlman, and are appreciative of their kindness and support as we sought to learn more about her. 

Brown Plasticflex clutch with Lucite pull, possibly added later by the original owner.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

White Plasticflex clutch with red and green lacing. Red crocheted pull appears to be homemade and added later. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Sat, Feb 17, 1940 – Page 3 · The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York) · Newspapers.com
White Plasticflex tote with handle from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Mon, Sep 22, 1947 – 2 · The Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tennessee) · Newspapers.com
Primary color Plasticflex tote with handle. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Sat, Mar 7, 1992 – 24 · The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York) · Newspapers.com

Plasticflex clutch with single tile laced to the end of the zipper pull.
From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum. 

Fri, Jan 30, 1942 – 3 · The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) · Newspapers.com
Brown and white narrow-tile Plasticflex clutch. From the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.

Sat, Sep 5, 1992 – 24 · The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York) · Newspapers.com
Wed, Jul 28, 1943 – Page 3 · The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York) · Newspapers.com
Sat, Jan 4, 2003 – 15 · The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York) · Newspapers.com
Trio of Plasti-Square clutches made by the Royal Bead Novelty Company, to whom R. Appel
licensed F. Kuhlman's patent. Note the subtle differences in the plaques.
Handbags from the collection of The Vintage Purse Museum.