Primitive people who lived during the Ice Age some 500,000 years
ago, were likely the first to use the skins of animals to protect their
bodies from the elements. Just as leather today is a byproduct, our
ancient ancestors hunted animals primarily for food, but once they
had eaten the meat, they would clean the skin by scraping off the
flesh and then sling it over their shoulders as a crude form of a coat.
They also made footwear to protect their bare feet from rocks and
thorns by taking smaller pieces of animal skin made to fit loosely
over the foot and tied at the ankle with thin strips of skin or even

The main problem that primitive man encountered was that after a
relatively short time the skins decayed and rotted away. With his
limited knowledge and experience, primitive man had no idea how to
preserve these hides. As centuries passed it was noticed that
several things could slow down the decay of leather. If the skins
were stretched out and allowed to dry in the sun, it made them stiff
and hard but they lasted much longer. Various oily substances were
then rubbed into the skins to soften them. As time passed, it was
eventually discovered that the bark of certain trees contained
"tannin" or tannic acid which could be used to convert raw skins into
what we recognize today as leather. It is quite hard to substantiate
chronologically at exactly what time this tanning method materialized,
but the famous "Iceman" dating from at least 5,000 BC discovered in
the Italian Alps several years ago, was clothed in very durable

Somewhat later, techniques used by the American Indian are very
similar to those used in this early period. These Indians took the
ashes from their campfires, put water on them and soaked the skins
in this solution. In a few weeks the hair and bits of flesh came off,
leaving only the raw hide. This tanning method, which used a
solution of hemlock and oak bark, took about three months to
complete after which the leather was worked by hand to make the
hide soft and pliable.

The Making of Leathergoods

The tanning of leather was used by mankind in numerous
geographical areas throughout the early periods of human
civilization. As certain leather characteristics began to emerge, men
realized leather could be used for many purposes besides footwear
and clothing. The uses and importance of leather increased greatly.
For example, it was discovered that water would keep fresh and cool
in a leather bag. It was also found suitable for such other items as
tents, beds, rugs, carpet, armor and harnesses. Ancient Egypt, one
of the most developed civilizations in this early period, valued
leather was as an important item of trade. The Egyptians made
leather sandals, belts, bags, shields,harness, cushions and chair
seats from tanned skins. Many of these items are in fact still made
from leather today.

Similarly, the Greeks and Romans used leather to make many
different styles of sandals, boots and shoes. When the Roman
legions marched in conquest across Europe, they were well attired
in leather armor and leather capes. In fact, right up until the early
18th century, the shield carried by the ordinary soldier was more
likely to be made of leather than metal.

The ancient Greeks refer to eight basic guilds of artisans, which
included both shoemakers and tanners. Although tanning was
originally a cottage trade, the Greeks had full-time professional
tanners who were at first employed in leather processing
establishments and became independent some time later. The barks
of conifers and alder were used as tannin sources and so were the
peel of the pomegranate, sumach leaves, walnut, cups of acorns as
well as an Egyptian heritage - mimosa bark. The Greeks were also
familiar with alum tanning and it appears they knew something about
tanning with fish oil. The types of leathers used were as diversified
as the end users. Homer refers to the use of cowhide, goat and
weasel leather by the Greeks.

The edict issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian which fixed
ceiling prices for all kinds of goods and services included skins and
leather prepared from goats, sheep, lambs, hyenas, deer, wild
sheep, wolves, martens, beaver, bears, jackals, seals, leopards and
lions. Under the edict, cowhide was even classified according to
groups and qualities. A complete tannery in the famous
ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii was unearthed in 1873.

As we move into the Middle Ages, leather continued to increase in
popularity. By far the cleverest craftsmen with leather in medieval
times were the Arabs. The Moors developed remarkable skill
primarily in the preparation of beautiful goatskin still known as
morocco leather after the country of its origin. In fact the description
'genuine morocco' is still very highly regarded today, particularly in
the manufacture of small leather goods.

In Medieval England, most industries were carried out by master
craftsmen aided by apprentices under the supervision of the
appropriate Craft Guilds. The leather trade was represented by a
large number of guilds including Cordwainers, Corriers, Fletchers,
Girdlers, Glovers, Homers (Bottle makers), Leather Sellers, Loriners,
Saddlers, Skinners, Pursers, Tanners and Harness-makers as well
as others. All kinds of containers were made from leather, such as
sword cases and dagger sheaths, box coverings and water bottles,
many of them beautifully decorated by punching and incising.
Leather was also a favorite medium for decorative art. Leather was
used to cover books. In those days, when the horse was the
principal means of transport, saddlery and harness making were
important uses of leather.

Until the later part of the 19th century, there were relatively few
changes in the methods used to produce leather. In fact, the
process had changed very little in over 200 years. However, the
industrial revolution did not bypass tanning - one of the oldest and
most basic forms of manufacturing. Science was quickly introduced
to the art and craft of leather making. A wider range of dyestuffs,
synthetic tanning agents and oils were introduced. Together with
precision machinery, these changes and continued innovations to
the present day have combined to make tanning into a viable,
modern manufacturing industry.
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