The Real History of Leather

Hide tanning has been practiced for millennia, and it has taken a troubling turn.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Max Ferrero.

It is ninety degrees in San Antonio when I pull up in front of a block long, windowless building with Hide Drop Off stenciled on the side. I have driven far south of downtown, through a Mexican American district of fruit stands and taco stands, across a set of railroad tracks, and to the end of an eerily empty dead-end road. I am here because Gary Thomas, proprietor of High Plains Sheepskin, has set up a tour for me with the Nugget Company, a tannery from which he orders his sheepskin pelts. Stepping out of the rental car, the stench accosts me—raw, meaty, sour—and I suddenly wonder if I will be able to stomach this. In Marrakesh, I have heard, guides at the medieval tanning pits give tourists mint leaves to stick in their noses to block the smell. I suspect I won’t be so lucky.

The custodian, a sad-looking man my age whose clothes are filthy from the work, peers out from behind the locked gate of the dock. I say the name of the owner, “Colin Wheeler,” and he lets me into a dimly lit warehouse, crowded with pallets piled high with fleeced skins, most of them dyed a pumpkin orange. The smell and heat are even heavier inside, enormous industrial fans blowing them about. On my way to meet Wheeler, another worker passes me pulling a cart with the eviscerated bodies of twenty bobcats, heads attached, flattened and stacked, as if they were costumes a child might try on. I recognize their spotted fur, their tufted ears. Thomas told me that in 1973 there were twenty-four or so sheepskin tanneries operating in the United States. The Nugget Company is one of the only ones left.

The real history of leather is the history of tanning. Untreated animal skins quickly harden, or, if kept humid, rot. Insects and bacteria move in to do their damage. An ancient human technology, the tanning process stops the natural process of death, which is decay. The word tanning comes from the word tannin, a naturally occurring chemical found in bark and leaves of plants. People have used oak, beech, sumac, and chestnut, as well as smoke, ammonia, pigeon excrement, animal brains, marrow, wheatmeal, and salt—anything, it seems, that will enter and biochemically merge with the skin fibers to soften and stabilize them. The Blackfeet might have been so named because the phenol in smoke blackened the buckskin they used for moccasins. The Yupiit collected alder bark, boiling it to use as a tanning agent and a deep red dye.

The Egyptians tawed their goat or pigskins, a method using alum and salt that results in skin that is white and stiff, although tawing does not result in a true leather. (Tawed skin will return to rawhide if soaked in water, as does unsmoked brain-tanned “buckskin.”) The grave of Tutankhamun, who was buried in 1550 BCE, contained alum-tawed sandals; the figures of his enemies, which are engraved on the inner soles so he could trample them, are still perfectly visible. (The outer soles of the more fabulous shoes—the grave contained eighty-one pairs—were unsoiled, perhaps because servants carried Tutankhamun when he wore them.) A large-scale tannery has been discovered under the ruins of the first-century city of Pompeii, as well as in archaeological digs throughout Ireland and England. The tanner’s guild, in fact, is among the oldest guilds in Europe: tanning was the first organized industry of medieval times. In the nineteenth century, manufactured chemicals were introduced as tannins, including chrome alum and chromium sulfate.

Wheeler greets me in his small air-conditioned office, jumping up from his computer to shake my hand. A tall, dark-haired man in his thirties, he wears fashionable thick-framed glasses, jeans, and a red T-shirt and seems open and friendly. Mike, on the other hand, whom he introduces as his general manager, sits, lacing a pair of blue suede shoes and scowling. “Most of our employees have gone home for the day; you should come back Monday when you can see them in action.”

Cherie M
5/10/2019 4:28:16 PM

Thank you for the very interesting read/article, I ordered your book Putting on the Dog. Cherie M

5/10/2019 8:31:58 AM

Lots of alternatives to leather.

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