The history of leathercraft is long and rich, dating back to the days of ancient civilizations.
From the early days of humans using animal skins for clothing and shelter to developing sophisticated tanning methods and using leather in luxury goods, the history of leather is fascinating.
Read on to learn more about the history of leather.
Leather is a durable and flexible material created from the skin of an animal. It has been used for centuries to make clothing, footwear, upholstery, bookbinding, and other items.
The oldest leather artifact is believed to be part of a shoe dating back 40-60 thousand years ago.
Leather was first tanned around 6500 BC using animal brains or blood mixed with water into a paste as a tanning agent; it was not until 1847 that vegetable tannins were introduced by Charles Goodyear (inventor).
There are three main types of leather: vegetable-tanned leathers like oak bark-tan; chrome-tanned skins, which are more supple than vegetable tannins but less durable; and oil-tanned skins, which are more durable than vegetable tannins but lack their flexibility.
The primary methods for tanning leather have not changed for over 5000 years.
However, the demand for leather has skyrocketed from an industry devoted to providing footwear and equipment to soldiers to a multi-billion dollar consumer good used in every walk of life. Here is a brief history of how modern leather evolved:
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TANNERY PERIOD (6000BC – 3000 BC)
Early civilizations developed a crude version of what we know as leather today using animal brains or blood mixed with water into a paste as a tanning agent.
It was then dried into a stiff hide that would be scuffed against stones to remove hair and allow the material to be scraped. This process created a material usable for items like shields, shoes, or bags.
ROMAN PERIOD (500 BC – 590 AD)
The leather industry flourished during the Roman Empire primarily to outfit its large army with boots and belts.
The tanning process became more refined by using water-driven rotary grindstones called “fullers” to remove moisture which sped the tanning process.
When the empire fell in 476 A.D., so did most of its leatherworking skills; only Spain continued working with leather throughout the Middle Ages.
TANNERY RENAISSANCE (1540 – 1820)
During this period, many advancements were made in the leather tanning industry, such as the discovery that alum could be used to fix dyes to leather and make it more weather resistant.
In 1540, a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which increased the demand for high-quality bookbinding leather.
By the 18th century, Industrial Revolution had spread throughout Europe, and new tanning methods were being developed using coal-tar dyes and chromium salts.
CHROMIUM TANNING (1847)
In 1847, Charles Goodyear (inventor) discovered that adding chrome salts to tanning liquor produced much harder and more durable leather than vegetable tannins.
This process is still used today and produces the most supple and flexible leather.
SYNTHETIC TANNING (1930)
With the development of synthetic chemicals in the early 20th century, new tanning methods were developed that did not use animal skins.
This included “chrome-free” tanning, using tannins from tree bark, and producing a more environmentally friendly product.
However, this type of leather was less durable and supple than traditional chrome-tanned leathers.
OIL TANNING (1920)
In 1920, an American inventor named Edwin Buell developed a process for oil tanning that produced more durable leather than traditional tannins.
This process is still used today and produces the most water-resistant and longest-lasting leather.
LEATHER TODAY (1995 – present)
Although there are new types of tanning processes being developed, such as “wet blue,” which leaves the skin very soft and suede-like, they all contribute to the same goal: creating a material that is strong yet supple enough to be made into items like boots, shoes, gloves, belts, and jackets.
Even though we live in an age where most people use rubber or plastic products instead of natural materials like animal skins for this purpose, our desire for high-quality leather goods has not changed since ancient times.
Despite its aura of luxury and appeal to those who want only the finest things in life, it remains one of humanity’s oldest and most essential materials.
The history of leather spans centuries and has evolved from a simple material used by ancient civilizations for items like shields, shoes, or bags to the multi-billion dollar industry it is today.
Leather has been used for countless purposes, from garments and furniture to books and car seats.
It is an incredibly versatile material that has withstood the test of time and is in high demand due to its beauty, durability, and comfort. The following is a brief overview of the history of leather:
The use of leather can be traced back to early civilizations such as the Sumerians, who used a crude version of what we know as leather today mixed with water and animal fats for items such as shoes and saddles. Other early civilizations that used leather included the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans.
Tribes in Central Asia were also proficient in using animal skin for this purpose; however, they would coat their weapons with a mixture of blood and milk before battles to give them an edge over other tribes, which used unmodified stones or other metal objects.
The armor worn by knights was often crafted from hardened leather scales laced together to create a protective covering.
When the Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D., most of its tanning knowledge did as well; only Spain continued working with leather throughout the Middle Ages.
Many historians believe that during this time, Spain developed the process of “tawing,” which uses alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) to make the leather more supple and durable.
The English also contributed to the development of leather tanning with their methods of using tree bark, fruits, and other natural elements in the tanning process.
The modern era of leather tanning began in earnest in the 18th century with the advent of new technologies such as steam power and chemical dyes.
This led to new and improved tanning methods that produced various colors and textures for leather goods.
In addition, the Industrial Revolution brought about mass production of boots, shoes, gloves, and other items made from leather, which helped to popularize this material among the general public.
The 20th century saw the development of new tanning methods, such as oil tanning, which produced a more durable and water-resistant leather.
This process is still used today and is responsible for the production of the most high-quality leather goods.
Leather remains one of the most popular materials for making items such as boots, shoes, gloves, belts, and jackets due to its beauty, durability, and comfort.
Despite being an ancient material, it has withstood the test of time and remains in high demand worldwide.
Thanks to continued innovation in leather tanning, we can look forward to centuries of using this versatile and essential material.