In the Beginning… it Wasn’t Leather.
Shortly after not-quite-man began hunting and killing his lunch, he decided that the covering removed from his daily protein could be used for shelter and clothing. The problem with using dried but still raw hides was the fact that sooner or later the hides would rot or stiffen. This was kind of unhandy as it forced regular replacement of the shelter and wardrobe.
Our prehistoric ancestors had a lot of time and energy invested in just getting their belly full without having to worry about replacing the house and Levis once a week! After using air or sun-dried hides, someone got the bright idea to soak them in water and dry them over a fire. Maybe it was the same guy who invented fire! Ma Nature must have revealed the secret of adding decayed plant matter to the water. A happy accident that improved the useful life of the skins.
Leather During the Common Era
Happy accidents continued in the period before recorded history and Ma Nature revealed the secrets of treating hides and skins. Archeologists have found fragments of leather garments in Egypt dating back to roughly 1300 BC. Greek heroes were using leather in the time of Homer about 1200 BC. Use of leather for armor an shields by the armies of the Roman empire became widespread. It’s possible that the Roman armies leaked the secrets all over the European continent as they advanced.
By the middle ages, leather tanning using various vegetable extracts containing tannin was common over most of the globe. Primitive societies in the middle and far east, Europe and North America seem to have developed the art independently at about the same time. The process was a closely guarded secret passed from generation to generation.
Producing leather was still a long, drawn out, complicated process. Many preparatory operations involving soaking, drying, removing flesh and hair, scraping and mechanical softening are necessary before the tanning and finishing that really make leather…leather. In the 1700s, the journey from hide to shoe or saddle leather could take as much as a year!!
Leather in Modern Times
The Industrial Revolution, development of mechanized methods and discovery of new tanning chemistry decreased the time and human energy involved in mass producing leather for the protection and decoration of modern man. The same basic steps in the leather-making process are still necessary but automated processing and advanced chemistry cut the time to market from months to days.
Old Bessie’s overcoat is often delivered to the tannery within hours of its removal. If this isn’t possible, hide suppliers used a temporary preservative method such as brine curing or refrigeration to make sure it arrives in prime condition.