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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Leather History

( Originally Published 1940 )

All the varied aspects of leatherwork have their roots in the occupation of the Tanner. The shoemaker, the saddle and harnessmaker, the leather tooler, the upholsterer, the parchment maker and dozens of others need his product. In the narrowest sense tanning might be regarded as more of an industry than a craft. But since it has been largely a manual process, until the industrial era, it falls within our scope. Many other manual industries must necessarily be omitted. Leather takes its place because of the diversity of crafts which it supplied with a basic material.

The tanner is a long familiar figure. He has been immortalized by Shakespeare, in the grave-digger's scene of Hamlet, for the dubious honor of outlasting other mortal remains in the grave.


How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he rot?

1st Gravedigger

Faith, if he be not rotten before he die,-as we have many pocky corses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in,-he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.


Why he more than another?

1st Gravedigger

Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.

This is probably graphically true, as the processes of the tanner's trade will indicate. Shakespeare, the son of a tanner, was in a good position to know. The tanning process is the neces sary step in the preparation of the skins or hides of animals for use. It entails the cleaning and preserving of the skins in order that they may be worked over by the currier whose task is the preparation of the leather for its subsequent specialized uses.

In the tanner's parlance hides are taken exclusively from cattle. Skins are taken from calves, or from smaller animals. The toughest and heaviest hides are known as butts and backs.

In the most primitive processes of leather preparation, preceding tanning, the skins were softened by being soaked in water for a long time, scraped, then treated with oil which was rubbed and pounded into the fibres of the material.

Tanning takes its name from the treatment of the hides with the chemical action of tannin, or tannic acid. Tannin is commonly obtained from the bark of trees, tanbark. Oak is favored, but willow and a large variety of other barks are also used, some of them adapted to the production of special leathers. The bark should be taken from trees at least thirty years old, and in the spring, when the sap has risen.

Tanbark is stripped from the tree with a tool called a spud, or peeling iron. It is laid out in slabs to dry and is then ground into a coarse powder to allow for the most efficient extraction of the tannin when it is mixed with water in the tanning pit.

In preparation for tanning, the hide is water soaked for several days, then scraped. It is next placed in a pit with lime and water for several days more. Sometimes it is hung up and smoked as an alternative to the latter process, in cases where the action of lime would be detrimental to the use for which the leather is ultimately destined. The smoking has the advantage of loosening the hair on the hide without the strong chemical action of the lime. Next the hair is scraped off with an unhairing knife, while the hide is stretched over a beam. It is also scraped on the reverse with a fleshing knife for the removal of all fleshy particles which may have adhered to it during the skinning. It is then soaked for some forty-eight hours in a sulphuric acid solution, after which it is ready for the tanning pits.

The pits are dug in the earth of the tanyard, are oblong in shape, and anywhere from six to eight feet in depth. They are usually clay lined. The pit is filled with ground bark, or tannin powder, and water, forming a solution called ooze. Skins are soaked in this from three months to as much as a year and a half. The ooze is replenished with tannin powder monthly to maintain its strength. The hides are often pushed around, hauled up and down and drained with long hooks, during the soaking.

This is pretty rough treatment. Accordingly the more delicate pelts or skins are sometimes given a preparation less drastic than the tannin soaking, and never see the pit. This milder process is called tawing.

Subsequently the tanned hides are dried out, remaining, as a rule, as stiff as a board. This is where the currier's task begins. His job is actually a distinct phase in itself and is sometimes carried out by a specialist. More often, however, the currier and tanner are one and the same person, both processes being performed on the same premises.

The currier's work has many aspects and details depending upon the specific use for which he is preparing the leather. He takes the stiff hides from the tanner and soaks them, to soften the leather for working. His varied treatments are for permanent suppleness, graining, smoothing, and bringing out the color and lustre.

Parchment making is one of the finishing processes which is quite close to the currier's own province. Parchment is made from a fine grade of sheep or lambskin. It is stretched on racks of various shapes and angles and carefully shaved and thinned to uniform thickness, then variously treated for qualities of texture, color, and grain.

The first New England tannery was set up at Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1629. Such a basic process naturally spread, and by 1669 New York had so many thriving tanneries that a special part of the city was set apart for them. This is perhaps a euphemistic way of saying that the tanners were exiled and concentrated, for the potent effluvia of a tanyard are among the most noxious and sickening odors created by any manufacturing process.

Tanning was largely carried on, in early America, by the processes described above. A good bit of small-scale tanning was done by farmers on their own establishments. The processes, at their best, were none too good and it was not until 1800 that the tanning of leather was accomplished in a really adequate manner. Since that time it has become a large-scale, wholly industrialized procedure.

The shoemaker, or cobbler, has always been one of the main consumers of leather since the abandonment of wood as a shoe material. Sole leather, heavy, sturdy and stiff enough to serve as the foundation of a shoe, comes directly from the tanner, requiring none of the currier's refinements. But leather is, of course, cellular animal tissue and is not naturally of sufficient density for such rough wear. Accordingly the thick slabs of stiff leather, removed from the tanning pit and dried, were pressed or rolled until they were brought to the required density. The leather was then sent to the shoemaker who cut it in rough soles to suit his need. The uppers were made of various types of softer, pliable leather.

A shoe is constructed around a last, or model, shaped in the contour of the foot for which the shoe is intended. In the modern ready-made shoe various sizes and models are manufac tured on a variety of graded lasts. In the days of custom shoemaking by the hand craftsman, many a steady customer of the cobbler had his own last, carved from his special foot measurements by the shoemaker. When a new pair of shoes was needed the cobbler merely took down the last belonging to John Doe and made the shoes.

A shoe consists of the stiff, heavy sole and heel which are strongly stitched, nailed, or bound to the soft, pliant upper. Elaborate and powerful machinery now turns out shoes for a vast industry. The tools of the hand shoemaker are many and varied, involving the use of many punches and heavy needles required in the working of so tough and thick a material. Cobblers' benches, of which a good many are extant today among fanciers of antiques, are among the most interesting and charming relics of our earlier days. It is rare, however, to find such a bench with its full equipment.

The saddler and harness-maker is another consumer of leather. A saddle is constructed on a basic framework of light wood called a tree. Beechwood is one of the best woods for this purpose. It is shaped, and prepared to resist warping and splitting, by the use of canvas wrappings, glue, and metal fastenings. It is stuffed and padded, shaped to fit the horse's back, yet to avoid chafing or hurting the animal. The whole is then covered with pig- or sheep-skin, pig-skin being the more durable and desirable material. The leather is tooled in designs of varying richness to suit the taste of the owner. The harness, with its rather elaborate gear, is also of leather.

Saddle making was a high art practiced and judged by connoisseurs in the roistering days of the American west. A beautiful, though modern, specimen of the more ornate American saddle style is to be found in the Sante-Fe Saddle, wonderfully tooled and studded with handworked silver and gold.

Leather is tooled and shaped in a variety of methods of leather art work far too numerous to be examined here. The use of tooled leather as a bookbinding material is extremely ancient and received consideration in the chapter on Bookmaking.

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