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 by-product, our ancient ancestor’s 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 vines.
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 leather. Taking a look at the system and tools that were once used to work leather. We immediately discover that from Palaeolithic times, almost to the present day, the processes and tools remained almost unchanged, gaining only in efficiency and comfort
Leather tanning is without a doubt one of the oldest human activities. In the beginning, skins obtained from hunting and livestock breeding could be used for clothing or tents, but they became stiff at low temperatures, while they rotted with heat. It was probably then that attempts were made to render them more flexible and stronger by rubbing in animal fats, the first rudimental tanning process is mentioned in Assyrian texts and in Homers Iliad.
Another process was smoking, which almost certainly started by accident, and which later became formaldehyde tanning, as this substance is found in the vapours produced by burning green leaves and branches. It was soon discovered that the rotting process could also be stopped by drying, carried out by exposure to the sun or by the dehydrating action of salt. Vegetable tanning was also known in very ancient times although it is not clear how the tanning action of the tannin contained in the bark of some plants (especially oak) was discovered. Another method known since the earliest times is tanning, based on the use of alum, a mineral which is fairly widespread in nature, particularly in volcanic areas.
These methods, which gradually became more refined and efficient, allowed skins to be used in the ancient world and continued to do so for century after century up to the present day. That the use of these techniques was widespread is witnessed by numerous written documents and paintings as well as archaeological finds. In Mesopotamia between the fifth and the third millennium B.C., for example, the Sumerians used skins for long dresses and diadems for ladies. The Assyrians used leather for footwear but also for liquid containers and as inflated floats for rafts.
The ancient Indian civilization first processed the type of leather known as the "Morocco" today.
In recorded history, pieces of leather dating from 1300 B.C. have been found in Egypt. Primitive societies in Europe, Asia and North America all developed the technique of turning skins into leather goods independently of one another. The Greeks were using leather garments in the age of the Homeric heroes (circa 1200 B.C.) and the use of leather later spread throughout the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, the Chinese knew the art of making leather.
North American Indians - also had developed great skills in leather work, they 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 Leather
The tanning of leather was used by mankind in numerous geographical areas throughout the early periods of human civilization; the first rudimental tanning process is mentioned in Assyrian texts and in Homers Iliad. 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, armour and harnesses.
An early Nubian predynastic grave has revealed a leather vessel at the head of the occupant where a pottery one would normally be expected.
Ancient Egypt - one of the most developed civilizations in this early period, valued leather as an important item of trade. The Egyptians made leather, the historian, Strabo, tells of an interesting use developed by Phoenicians who made water pipes from it. They also made sandals, belts, bags, shields, harness, cushions and chair seats from tanned skins. Many of these items are in fact still made from leather today. The Egyptians also achieved considerable skill in processing leather, which they used for clothing (even for gloves), tools, and arms or simply for ornament.
The historian, Strabo, tells of an interesting use developed by Phoenicians who made water pipes from it. During Roman times, leather was widely used in all the provinces of the empire, and more efficient tanning techniques were introduced where they had not been developed locally.
The Hittites - one of the oldest civilizations in Anatolia, which is known as the leather production centre since the very old times, developed the art of tannery with aluminium during their civilization's brightest period between the years 2000-1200 B.C. These lands were rich in aluminium compounds and vegetal dressing pelts, and that made it possible for the tannery process to be completed under perfect conditions. During the excavations in Bogazkoy and Alisar, leather pieces were found in a boy's grave belongs to year 2800 B.C. The Hittites used gallnut and alum as dressing pelts in leather works.
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 by wetting the leather and forming it to the warrior’s body forming armour 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, sumac 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.
A tannery was uncovered amid the ruins of Pompeii and the same equipment of the kind still in use for centuries thereafter was found in it. 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. The Romans used leather both for footwear and clothing and for making shields and harnesses. A complete tannery in the famous ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii was unearthed in 1873.
In the 8th century Spain, then under the dominion of the Moors, we have the development of the production of "Cordovan", thanks to important progress in tanning, a type of leather famous throughout Europe for centuries. That skill in leather tanning was not a prerogative of the western world as recounted by Marco Polo. In his "Travels" he tells us that the Mongols used leather flasks, covers, masks, and caps, decorated artistically, and it was him who coined the expression "Russia Leather" to indicate a type with a characteristic fragrance.
A considerable improvement in processing techniques occurred in the 12th century with the result being that between then and the last century, there were no substantial changes to tanning systems. Even oil tanning was used to produce protective garments while tawing was widespread although the results were not always satisfactory. Often, finishing operations were carried out to improve the malleability of the leather and improve its appearance, especially by dyeing. The products, though essentially practical, also met decorative requirements.
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.
Medieval England - ancient Britons had many uses for leather from footwear, clothing and leather bags, to articles of warfare. The hulls of the early boats, known as coracles, were also covered in leather. Through the centuries leather manufacture expanded steadily and by mediaeval times most towns and villages had a tannery, situated on the local stream or river, which they used as a source of water for processing and as a source of power for their water wheel driven machines
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 favourite medium for decorative art. Leather was used to cover books. In those days, when the horse was the principal means of transport, saddler and harness making were important uses of leather.
Britain has been the home of leather vessels for longer and in higher numbers than anywhere else in history and their existence has become quintessentially British. In the fourteenth century, for instance, leather was being used in combination with wood in chairs, arm-chairs, and settles with craftsmanship that reached the levels of an art-form.
This was also the case later on with tapestries (especially in Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) with chests and cases, and of course, with book bindings, perhaps the most lasting and refined use of the material. Going back to tanning techniques, it is more or less in the Middle Ages that the depilating action of quick lime was discovered, a technique which is still valid and normally used today.
A radical shake-up was provided in the middle of the last century with the discovery of the tanning power of chrome salts which led to a drastic improvement in production and was applied in practice in industrial production towards the end of the century. Another revolutionary element was the substitution of the tanning pit with the rotating drum, along with the discovery of new types of tannins.
The Black Jack`s name is derived from the materials used in its construction. Leather that has been soaked in hot water and dried is known as Jack leather. The same source can be attributed to the name for German Jackboots and Medieval Arming Jacks. This is also the origin of the modern word for jacket. Jacks were originally black because the black material used to line the inside, was used on the outside of the vessel thus colouring it.
In the early 1900s, the brown leather flight jackets worn by aviators and members of the military, commonly called "bomber jackets", were prized for their comfort and durability. The jacket was often part of an overall uniform ensemble meant to protect fliers from exposure to the extreme climate conditions found at high altitude, and sometimes incorporated sheepskin, using the intact fleece on the inside for warmth.
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. As a result of all these innovations, the time required for tanning was shortened incredibly from eight months to a year, to a period of a few days today.
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.