The story of leather begins as early man used the skins of animals to protect their bodies and feet.  Best estimates are this started in the Ice Age some 500,000 years ago. Unfortunately, these skins decayed and rotted away rapidly, because man had not yet learned to tan them. Through trial and error, man tried to find something that would make the skins last longer. He stretched them in the sun, rubbed animal brains in the pores, and even smoked the hides. He eventually got a longer lasting skin, but this was still not tanned leather. 

There is no written record of who discovered the tanning process, but it is assumed tanning was discovered by accident. Perhaps some raw hides were left in still water and leaves or bark of the trees, which contain tannin or tannic acid, fell in the water and the first crude vegetable tanned  leather came about. Eventually man improved the tanning process and was able to use the leather for things other than clothing and footwear. Leather was used for armor, harnesses, carpets, tents and water bags. The ancient Egyptians became very skilled in working leather and used is for sandals, belts, bags, shields, cushions and chairs. The Romans and Greeks were also very good tanners using leather for boots, armor and caps. Slowly the knowledge of tanning spread to all parts of the world. The Britons became very proficient in tanning and developed guilds to further strengthen the industry. The guilds became very strong and imposed strict rules on apprenticeship and the members. One example was that no leather goods could be sold after dark, because goods had to be inspected only in daylight hours.

Until the 19th century, there was little progress in the tanning process. While there was some use of alum (aluminum) salts, most tanning was done by the vegetable process using the bark of trees such as oak, mimosa, hemlock, etc., all containing tannin. The process was slow and some leathers took up to two years to tan. The finished product was stiff, tan in color and limited in use.

In 1880 chrome tanning was invented by Cavallin, a Swede and F. Knapp a German. An American chemist, however, Augustus Schultz was the first to patent the chrome tanning process. His was a much quicker process than vegetable tanning and produced a product completely resistant to water. The product was blue in color, stiff, but very resistant to tearing. Not long afterwards a young tanner, Robert Foerderer of Philadelphia learned to treat the hard blue leather with soaps and oils that made it supple for use in jackets and shoe uppers. The aniline vat dying process was added to get a full penetration of the color. In the meantime, the vegetable tanning process was also improved. An Italian, R.Lepetir, used quebracho (an Argentine tree) in vegetable tanning, greatly shortening the vegetable tanning process.


What is it that makes leather so important after all these years? Why is leather still the principal material used in footwear?  Leather has a very unique structure. It is made up of millions of tiny hairline fibers finer than hair. They are so fine that 2,000 side by side would only span one centimeter. These fine fibers are grouped together into coarser fibers in turn are grouped together into even thicker fibers. These fibers are then woven together in an intricate pattern with special characteristics allowing air channels and passages. This allows air and perspiration to pass through and provides good elasticity. It is especially essential for shoes. In luggage this elasticity helps in comfortable packing. 

 Leather can take a lot of abuse and scuffing and extreme temperature changes with no problem. Since leather has air between its fibers, it acts as insulation from cold or heat. Leather is simply a very durable material that is why it is still used as packing on moving parts or seals on machinery and even on shafts of battleships! Yes, many leathers will scratch especially if they have a very natural, unprotected finish. Surface scratches will not weaken the leather. A modest amount of scratching and scuffing will give you article the “leather look” and distinguish it from any vinyl look-a-likes.

Karl Iszler