The History of Leather as We Know It


The History of Leather as We Know It

Leather can be tracked back to man’s very beginning. The saying goes that prostitution is the oldest profession, but leather crafters the world over would probably argue theirs is the oldest craft and profession. There were likely men selling leather before there were prostitutes.

Just look in Genesis 3:21, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” From the New International Version (NIV) Bible

Or, Homer's Iliad (Written sometime between 1260–1180 BC):

"The ox hide, which is soaked in fat, is pulled to and fro by men standing in a circle, thus stretching the skin and causing the fat to penetrate into the pores."

Humans first began using animal skins to protect themselves from the elements about 500,000 years ago. They scraped the flesh off the skin and flung it over their shoulders as a coat or cloak and wrapped pieces around their feet to make primitive shoes. This was the beginning of the use of leather. Eventually they realized if the skins were stretched out in the sun and left to dry and rubbed with oil and bark from certain trees, they felt softer and lasted longer. That was the beginning of tanning. Although it's impossible to pinpoint the exact date the process was first used, by 5,000 BC man had mastered tanning hide.

Variety of Animal Skins

Widespread Use of Animal Skins

Early human civilization worldwide used tanned leather for a variety of purposes in addition to making shoes and clothing. Leather was used to make tents, rugs, beds, belts, cushions, chair seats, harnesses, shields and armor. Plus, bags made from skins were used to keep water fresh and cool in places like Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Among the ancient Greeks tanners and shoemakers were highly respected artisans. They used barks from alders, conifers, and mimosa, pomegranate peels, sumac leaves, acorns, walnuts, alum and fish oil in the tanning process.

A Variety of Animal Skins

Ancient leather-crafters worked with many different animal skins. According to Homer, the Greeks used cow, goat, and weasel hide to make shoes and clothing. The Roman emperor Diocletian even issued an edict setting the price of the tanned skins of goats, lamb, sheep, deer, leopards, lions, beaver, seals, and other animals used to make shoes and clothing based on their quality. In 1873, ash-preserved ruins of a tannery were unearthed in Pompeii. During the Middle Ages, the Arabs and Moors were known for their remarkable skill in making beautiful items of goatskin and other hides.

Techniques Still Used Today

Techniques Still Used Today

In Medieval England master craftsmen and craft guilds were involved in making beautifully decorated saddlery, sword cases, dagger sheaths, book covers and art works tanned hides. In Assyria, Mesopotamia, India, Venice and among the Sumerians, Phoenicians, and Mongols incredible inflated rafts, water pipes, caps, flasks, tapestries, and more were made from leather using processes and tools that remain largely unchanged until the recent introduction of precision machinery, synthetics tanning agents, and other innovations. The method of using flasks from animal skins is still widely used today.

Many leather crafters believe the history of leather is a never-ending tale of their craft.

Read more about the historical use of leather by the craftsmen in the CP Slippers Brand Book.

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