Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Leather And Rubber

( Originally Published 1918 )



Skins as clothing. Leather is the tanned hide of animals, chiefly nowadays of cattle and horses and, less commonly, of sheep, goats, and other smaller beasts. The untanned skins of wild and domesticated animals constituted the first clothing that deserved the name ; man took the coat off the animal and put it on himself. Thus leather long antedated textiles for body protection. But it was necessary to treat the hides in order to render them pliable enough for use, and gradually processes corresponding to what we call tanning were developed. The Indian women used to scrape the bison hides until they were thin and then make them still more pliable by rubbing in the brain or fat of the animal. They certainly had attained the art of treating skins and pelts ; of the quality of their deerskin garments nothing but good can be said. But the skins were cured by smoking, for they did not understand the use of oak or hemlock bark in genuine tanning.

The leather industry in the colonies. The American colonists carried on the tanning process at an early date, and almost every village had its tannery ; Roxbury, Massachusetts, was a tanning center as early as 1647. In some of the colonies laws were passed at an early date regulating the disposal of hides and tanning in general, as, for example, in Massachusetts in 1642. Butchers, curriers, and shoemakers were prohibited from tanning, for the idea was to make this a separate occupation ; only a tanner was allowed to buy a hide. Also it was against the law to sell poorly tanned leather ; curriers were instructed as to how their part of the work was to be done, and shoemakers could use only leather which was marked and guaranteed by the inspectors to be a first-class product. In 1646 this colony forbade the exportation of raw hides or of leather that had not been worked up ; and other colonies passed similar regulations. The attention devoted to the business shows its importance in the eyes of the settlers.

Tanning. Tanning is a process calculated to fill the pores of leather and make it lasting. It consists mainly in so treating the skins that they are freed from flesh and fat and then soaking them in a liquid containing some tanning preparation. In early times the process was a long one and lasted from a year to fifteen months, but it was effective and the leather was almost indestructible ; when skins were finally certified as being tanned, they were really tanned, not merely doctored up with chemicals. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the tanning material was hemlock or oak bark. Then, as the forests were cut away and more and more hides appeared for treatment, new tannin products were forthcoming from different parts of the world. But as long as the vegetable tannin was in common use the location of hemlock and oak forests largely determined the location of the industry. Then, about 1850, came the discovery that tanning could be done without the use of vegetable materials ; that is, by the use of chromium compounds. The development of this process of tanning occurred in Philadelphia, which soon became the leading leather-manufacturing city of the world.

Varieties of leather. The hides of all sorts of animals are now made into leather. Fur-bearing pelts are tanned without disturbing the hair. Thus are produced a great variety of leathers : the heavy hide is made into sole leather and into material for belting and harness ; calfskin finds its principal use in the uppers of boots and shoes and in bookbinding ; sheepskin is employed for shoe-linings, whips, aprons, and gloves ; goatskins are adapted to the manufacture of gloves and ladies' shoes ; pigskin is used for making traveling bags and saddle parts ; dogskin is in great demand for gloves, and horsehide for the toughest and roughest hand wear. Porpoise hide will make good and durable leather. Though it is now used almost solely for shoestrings, the time will doubtless come when this resource will be better utilized. In addition to this list of leathers, the kangaroo, alligator, elephant, rhinoceros, walrus, and shark furnish their peculiar varieties. Leather is becoming so scarce and high-priced nowadays that leather substitutes are getting into the market ; in Germany, where the Great War occasioned various clever economies, it is said that a shoe with only the uppers of leather and the sole made of thin and pliant wood is found to be practicable.

Boots and shoes. When we consider the uses of leather, the first thing we think of is boots and shoes ; and there can be no better example of the practical utility of this product. In the eighteenth century the saddler and shoemaker followed close upon the tanner, and by 1731 Americans were almost fully supplied with shoes of their own manufacture. Shoemakers were located in towns and also went from house to house working up the family leather supply ; so, too, cobblers went about from house to house. Massachusetts even manufactured a surplus of shoes, which were sold in other colonies and in the West Indies. An impetus was given the shoe industry when, in 1764, the colonists showed their resentment of England's placing of duties on American imports by re-fusing to buy British goods. During the Revolution there was great suffering from scarcity of shoes and leather, but the industry revived after 1783.

Importation of hides. Since we had not enough hides, these were imported from South America and the East ; the cattle industry of this country has, as we have seen, made extraordinary progress, but we have not been able to supply ourselves with leather and have kept on importing hides until today they constitute one of the principal items among our imports. We have raised our cattle chiefly for meat, not hides ; and the two purposes are not so easily combined, for the best leather comes from tough, rangy steers whose beef is inferior. The preparation and manufacture of leather from both our own domestic product and from these importations have been developed by the United States until we lead the world in this line. And although there are many distinct varieties — not to mention qualities —of leather goods, the most important branch of this business is the one we have started out to survey, namely, the boot and shoe manufacture.

Prominence of Massachusetts. Massachusetts easily leads the country in this industry ; her leadership dates very far back and has already been referred to as an illustration of the advantage of an early start. As early as 1635 a skillful shoemaker settled in Lynn, and fifteen years later the town was making more shoes than were made in any other town in the colony or even in the country— especially women's shoes, which were largely of cloth. But most of the shoemakers of this period were quite unskilled, and even in the early part of the eighteenth century well-made shoes were derived almost solely from England. Lynn, however, was the chief source of supply for New England, and marketed shoes in New York, Philadelphia, and even farther south. In 1750 another superior shoemaker, a Welshman, settled in this town and, because of his skill, soon became locally known as " the celebrated shoemaker of Essex " (the county in which Lynn is situated). From him a number of local people acquired a better knowledge of the art, and the business of the town increased. In 1764 it was reported in the London Chronicle that the women's shoes made at Lynn exceeded in beauty and strength any that were usually imported from London. The towns of eastern Massachusetts provided the Revolutionary army with most of its shoes, and in 1788 Lynn alone exported 100,000 pairs, a figure which rose to 300,000 in 1795. Lynn had such a reputation for the rapid manufacture of shoes that a legend developed to the effect that the materials, having been stuck to the wall with an awl, were combined in the proper manner by a blow of the lapstone skillfully aimed at them. It was asserted that boots and shoes grew spontaneously at Lynn. In any case, for over two centuries this town has had an ascendancy in the American shoe manufacture, and all this was due, we are told, to the fact that the Welshman settled there rather than elsewhere.

Improvements in manufacture. Great improvements have been made in the shape, style, and durability of American shoes since 1750. This is due partly to imitation and partly to Yankee ingenuity, also in some degree to the improved quality of the leather for uppers, resulting from superior splitting and currying processes. Methods of manufacture have been much improved. In the old days shoes were sewed by hand, and the American invention of the shoe peg did not come till 1818. This invention had a powerful influence upon the industry ; the pegs were first made by hand, then by machinery, and had a big market among shoemakers all over the country when it was discovered how much cheaper pegging was than sewing. In fact, numerous establishments soon appeared which made nothing but pegs; it is reported that the tradition was current in New England that at one time shoe pegs became so plentiful and cheap that artful speculators tried to sell them to farmers as a new variety of seed oats.

The use of machines. The invention of the sewing machine was opportune for this industry, for it was adapted to the purpose and diminished hand labor very greatly, also taking the manufacture out of the domestic field into the factory, where large numbers of the new machines could be operated by power. Machines were built for pegging shoes and for smoothing the rough soles after the pegging; lasts 'too were made by machinery, and so hand labor was further diminished or done away with altogether. Since the middle of the last century it has been the labor-saving machinery that has made our boot and shoe industry what it has become ; the shoe factory is a product of the latter half of the century, and the hand processes have been disappearing. In constructing a shoe there is at the present day a perfect system of continuous manufacture involving nearly a hundred operations, and machinery is being continually improved, the keenness of competition forcing factories to adopt new devices at once. After the general adoption of machinery came a noteworthy concentration of manufacturing in Massachusetts ; Brockton, Lynn, and Haverhill together have produced about a fifth of all the shoes made in the country and half of all made in the state. Other important centers are St. Louis, Boston, New York, Manchester (New Hampshire), Cincinnati, Rochester, and Philadelphia.

The industry in the West. The establishment of boot and shoe factories in parts of the country other than eastern Massachusetts was not undertaken until well along in the last century, and it was due to the enterprise of certain individuals who set out to avoid the heavy expense of shipping a commodity like shoes from the East to the great markets in other parts of the land. There are now numerous well-equipped and prosperous factories throughout the West and even on the Pacific coast.

Rapid strides. The development of the industry during the last few decades has been remarkably rapid ; since 1879 the number of establishments has decreased, but there has been a marked advance in the number of operatives, capital investment, cost of materials used, and value of product. Our shoe manufacture caters, however, mainly to the domestic market ; the foreign trade in shoes is small. This is due in part to the export of American shoe-machinery, so that foreigners are in actuality making American shoes.

Saddles and harness. The manufactures of saddlery and harnesses, of trunks and valises, of gloves and mittens, are important branches of the leather industry. With respect to the first, it may be recalled that saddles were in much greater demand than harnesses in the early history of this country ; good roads were few, and the mails and messengers used the saddle horse. Later there was an increasing demand for harness. The earlier forms were for heavy stages and wagons, and the lack of saddlery and harness hardware was a severe handicap to the early development of the industry. Such hardware had to be imported from England and transportation was exasperatingly slow. Horse collars were made as early as 1828, and harnesses came in with road improvement. The industry has continued to develop until, at the present time, saddlery and harnesses stand for an annual value of over $50,000,000.

Gloves. Glove and mitten manufacture in this country dates from about 1760, when some Scotch glove-makers settled in New York State and provided hand-coverings for farmers and woodchoppers. It was not until early in the last century that gloves were manufactured for more than local consumption. It is reported that a storekeeper of Johnstown, New York, had a lot of gloves made in 1809 and took them on horseback to Albany, where he found an easy market. He then secured the services in glove-cutting of the daughters of neighboring farmers, and the gloves were made up by the farmers' wives. This seems to have been the beginning of the commercial glove-making business in this country. These so-called gloves were really mittens, not gloves; about 1825 a resident of Gloversville, New York, took a load of real gloves to Boston and disposed of them satisfactorily. Thus the impetus of an early start came to Gloversville and Johnstown, and they now manufacture together nearly half of the leather gloves and mittens made in the United States.

Present conditions in the leather trade. The present prices of leather and leather goods are such as to cause concern : the domestic-animal industry has not kept pace with the growth of population in most countries, and the situation is reflected in the rise of meat and leather; and the demand caused by the Great War forced prices still higher. There seems to be no likelihood of a speedy return to former conditions, and it is to be hoped that American ingenuity will speedily devise some relief for the poor and even the moderately well-to-do.

A tropical product. Rubber is a vegetable product and by no means a modern one. Columbus found the Indians using, it, and Spanish soldiers smeared their cloaks with the gum to water-proof them. French investigators, who came to America in the earlier part of the eighteenth century in search of scientific information, told of the strange forest trees whose sap, when properly treated, furnished a substance as flexible as leather and as impervious to water as metal. The natives called the gum cahuchu, from which comes the word " caoutchouc " ; but the English called it " India rubber." An account of the manner in which it is gathered does not belong to a history of American industries, but is described in a book entitled " Commercial and Industrial Geography," by the authors of the present book. It is enough to say that it is 'all imported in raw form from tropical countries ; here we have to do only with its manufacture.

Earlier uses of rubber. The commodity was unknown to science until 1735, and as late as 1770 it was used almost solely to make " rubbers " for erasing pencil marks. The first rubber ever brought to this country is said to have been imported into Boston in 1800, the year of the birth of Charles Goodyear. But' for fifty years prior to 1823 there was much experimentation with the substance and many records of dismal failures, for the rubber industry, in other countries as well as in this, was of little significance until the discovery of the process of vulcanization. However, in 1823 Mackintosh made a fairly useful application of it by starting a factory in Glasgow for the waterproofing of cloth ; his products were good for a while, but could not stand the heat. Over here the attempt was made to imitate the Mackintosh process, but with little success ; the stuff got too hard in cold weather, too soft in warm, and dissolved if it touched oil or grease or even the moisture of perspiration. The substance could not be mastered, and finally people grew impatient with it. Several factories failed, and it looked as if India rubber could be used only for imperfect waterproofing and for erasers.

The Goodyear invention. This was the situation when Good-year came along with his great discovery, in 1842, of vulcanization. " After ten years of patient study and experimenting he accidentally spilled a combination of rubber and sulphur on a hot stove, and quickly discovered that the heat made the rubber dry like leather and that thereafter it was neither melted by the heat nor cracked by the cold. Many other processes have been developed around the Goodyear process, which consists in mixing rubber and sulphur at a moderate heat and then raising it to a temperature ranging from about 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit." 1 Goodyear thus introduced to the public an elastic, nonadhesive, vulcanized India rubber which was as different from the pure gum rubber as gold is from brass. Here was the beginning of the modern industry, and the next step was the invention of hard rubber, or vulcanite.

Rapid growth of the industry. These discoveries revolutionized the rubber manufacture in the United States. Companies were formed under the Goodyear patents, and by 1850 over $3,000,000 worth of rubber goods were being manufactured in this country. Ten years later the. few large factories were making over $5,500,000 worth, and by 187o sixty-five plants were manufacturing annually rubber goods to the value of over $ 14,000,000. These factories were concentrated in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. At present there are about three hundred establishments, turning out annually a product valued at $300,000,000. To such a stature has an industry grown that had been virtually given up in disgust !

The demand for rubber. The Civil War lent a powerful impetus to the rubber industry, especially in its relation to clothing, for the government gave out large contracts for rubber blankets, and rubber boots and shoes were in great demand.

Soon after the war the manufacture of mechanical goods was greatly stimulated, and the general industrial development called for ever-increasing quantities of rubber ; railways needed packing, and hose was in demand for carrying water, steam, and gas. Expansion of the factory system called for rubber belting ; the first rubber belt was made in 1836, but it was not until after the Civil War that belting of this sort became popular. The invention of the pneumatic tire, shortly before the beginning of this century, together with the marked expansion of the bicycle and automobile industries, raised the demand for rubber higher than ever before. All these factors and also the development of the great electrical industries of the country combine to explain the tremendous expansion of the rubber industry within the last two or three decades. Hard rubber, or vulcanite, was patented about the middle of the last century, and combs were the first articles to be made extensively out of it ; since that time all sorts of products, such as pipe fittings, buttons, inkwells, penholders, and rulers, have been fashioned out of vulcanite.

Rubber footwear. The leading branch of rubber manufacturing in this country, however, from the very beginning down to the day of the automobile, was the making of rubber boots and shoes.

The essentials of this process are described in another book by the present authors. This industry was of comparatively small importance until 1880, but between 1890 and 1900 the number of factories rose. from eleven to twenty-two. Massachusetts leads in rubber footwear, as in other kinds. It is to be noted that recent years have shown a small increase of establishments, but a large increase of product ; this means heightened efficiency of the old factories.

Automobile tires. The main branch of our rubber-goods industry at the present day is the manufacture of automobile tires. The quantity of rubber consumed in this line alone is tremendous ; and in the manufacture of our rubber products — tires, footwear, mechanical goods, clothing, druggists' supplies, and hard rubber — we consume a large percentage of the world's output of cured rubber. The natural rubber trees are no longer depended upon for the supply ; rubber plantations on a large scale are now adding a great deal to it. Chemists have made synthetic rubber, but it has not yet come into serious competition with the vegetable variety. Prices of rubber and rubber goods are on the steady and rapid increase.

Use of old rubber. Another interesting phase of "the rubber industry is the reclaiming of old waste rubber. There are collected annually vast quantities of old rubber in the form of discarded rubbers, rubber boots, shoes, belting, hose, and other articles made either in whole or in part of rubber. This waste is reduced to powder and treated in various ways, after which it is ready to be sent to the mills for manufacture into rubber goods.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com