Note: I wrote this in 2003 but the area it covers means I have not updated it, only corrected a few spelling and grammatical errors. It is a short read that I hope everyone finds interesting.
Leather in ancient history was an important material. It was functional in a multitude of uses from armour to a writing material. It was very prestigious and wealthier people used leather articles from furs to wall hangings to demonstrate their standing in society.
Along with agriculture, metal and textiles leather and its allied industries was one of the top four industries in the world until the second half of the 19th century.
From fairly early on in history two industry structures existed. On the one hand a wide ranging raw material supply network to bring skins of different types to the courts of the leading nation states, and local manufacturing clusters for tanning and allied industries.
The supply network quickly encompassed furs from the Baltic and Northern/Eastern Europe plus skins from North Africa. Local vegetable materials were mostly used for tanning but there was movement in alum which was important for some tannages and for dyeing.
Clusters were first seen in Pergamon, Cordoba, Roma (near the port), Fez and Marrakesh. Some clustering was forced on the tanners for environmental reasons, primarily smell. This happened in Venice where the tanners were put on an outlying island and in Fez, where they were put downwind.
There was a strong religious/ ethnic aspect to the development of leather. The Jewish soon developed and retain today strict rules on the way parchment should be made and handled. From 500 through to about 1400 Islamic technology was important for maintaining and developing post Roman knowledge of the tanning process and allied skills – such as the embossed finishing from Cordoba. In some areas such as Japan and India hide handling and leather processing were done only by low castes. In India this meant some tannery workers changed to Islam and to Christianity to avoid being trapped as low caste Hindus.
Industry location in the early centuries and millennium appears to be much defined by the location of Kings and Emperors and their courts. The functionality and the prestige of leather meant that it was a required material. From Pergamon in 300BC to the House of Orange in 1830 we see definitive moves to relocate or develop leather production to meet such needs. This high level of demand made some areas of production very profitable indeed.
Cordovan leather quickly spread from Cordoba to other cities in Spain. And then was copied throughout Europe. All major city brands (Bougie, Morocco, Russian, Cordovan Gilt Leather etc) started to be made in different locations thus varying both raw materials and processes. By the 15th or 16th century these named leathers were more confusing than they were enlightening. But overall leathers with a Cordoban/Spanish origin had the greatest influence until the introduction of chrome tanning in the late 19th century.
Because of the profits available and the strategic importance there were a lot of constraints on trade in Middle Age Europe, defined by a mix of the Guilds and Legal Acts. These supposedly protected the quality by laying down regulations on the length of tannage time and big penalties for substituting tin for silver foil in the making of gilt leather. At the same time these regulations put a constraint on innovation.
In the UK the Guilds were very strong and were able to persuade King Henry VIII to pass a number of strongly protective Acts which amongst other things tightly protected the industry against imports until the they were dismantled in the 1820s. These Acts also clearly slowed technical progress.
The guild structures varied quite a lot throughout Europe. There was often strong competition between trade guilds (the actual manufacturers) and the merchant guilds, which is often depicted as the first division of labour and capital. Where guilds were small in a town they grouped together to achieve a size large enough to maintain influence in the community management and politics. This created a number of unexpected combinations, especially in the UK where the laws established strict division of labour between guilds yet practicality bought them together in a single guild in some cities.
The merchant guilds tended to be more open to new technologies than the trading guilds, as shown by the Leathersellers involvement in importing a Spanish Tannage to London in the 16th century. The leather industry was disaggregated and broken up in different segments compared to the 20th and 21st centuries, and where glove makers or gold leather producers became involved in tanning they were more open to make changes to assist in improving their business. For example in Mechelen in Belgium the gold leather producers developed a drum tannage system for cattle leather in the 18thcentury in order to speed the process and reduce inventories. The regular tanners guild had established a rule that tanning for quality required a nine month minimum in pits, and so took the gold tanners to court to try and stop the new practise. They lost.
As the Age of Enlightenment passed Europe became interested in science and technology, and in improving he technology of is industries. When the RSA was founded in 1753 it set targets in the textile and leather industry. For leather they related to improvements in dyeing technology and in finding new sources of quality vegetable tannins. This led to the work of Sir Humphrey Davy who published the definitive text on vegetable tannins and their methods of analysis in 1803.
Similar work was going ahead in France and in Germany at this time. In the US the early 1800s marked American interest in the concept of industrialisation and a number of new machines such as the splitting machine were patented and put into regular use.
As the 19th century continued to progress it became clearly recognised in the US and Europe that great strides could be made by development of both the little understood chemistry and the mechanics of leather production. Current technologies were not adequate to meet growing demands for volumes and qualities. The process took too long and the leather that came out was largely too thick, too hard and with inadequate resistance to water. In the late 18th and through the 19th centuries the wealth that cold be created through patenting inventions was also noted and attracted many outsiders too look at what could be done with leather.
The US Civil war seems to have been a turning point for leather and a lot of things came together at about that time:
- Demand for leather grew strongly, partly because of war needs and partly because the US population (especially the urban population) was growing
- Introduction of steam power in the 1860s saw the start of steam driven tanneries at this time. Not just in the US. For example in Holland we also saw the Rompa tannery as the first steam driven tannery in that country
- The concept of industrialisation via interchangeable pars was rising in importance in the US via the armouries, and his had a knock-on effect to the thinking about tannery development
- US shoe making moved through the stages of home sewing and factory soling (also in Somerset UK) and then fully into factories after the introduction of the sewing machine
- The railways and the use of ice for refrigeration allowed the US to set up cattle centres and abattoirs e.g. Pittsburg, where German immigrants developed a big downstream clusters for meat and bi-products including tanning
Out of this came a number of new tannages such as the Dongola from Gloversville and more importantly chrome tanning which was first thought of in Sweden and Germany in the mid 1800s but developed and commercialised in the late 1800s. The impetus for is exploitation came from a Liverpool trading house which had set up in New York to import UK leather. They ended up buying a tannery in the US and used it to help a locally based German chemist to develop the tannage.
During 1890-1920 the US came to the top in world terms in the technology of leather manufacture with its introduction of chrome tanning and alongside very high levels of manufacturing efficiency and mechanisation.
Germany was second with its strong chemical industry developing materials – dyes and synthetic tanning and retanning material – and the UK dropped to third place. Spain and Italy had slipped in importance and were not to regain their place until later in the 20th century.
The 1890-1920 introduction of chrome tanning was the nearest to a systemic change the industry had ever seen. Most importantly chemists were needed with an understanding of the organic and protein chemistry involved. Many leather schools and leather research institutes were set up around this time. It was the moment of the widest introduction of the tanning drum.
In the first half of the 20th century there was a lot of technical innovation in the industry with a triumvirate of in tannery research, chemical company work, and research institute work. Much of the research institute research related to hide structure and protein chemistry. Some of the research was accelerated because of the world wars and the fear of the denial of access to dyestuffs and tanning chemicals which created the development of leather finishes and synthetic tannages.
The latter part of the 20th century saw only limited incremental technical changes, most of which related to environmental issues. These included the substitution of whale oils and the removal of carcinogenic materials as they were discovered. Beyond this there was a general raising of technical standards, taking many leathers from a basic commodity to a more performance material. More significantly the highly labour-intensive leather using industries – footwear, garments and gloves – began what was to become a wholesale move to cheap labour countries. At the same time third world countries that hold 70% of the world’s raw material demanded the right to add value at origin. This rapidly created a new form of disaggregation and the establishment of a great variety of business network types, mostly if not exclusively lead by major western retail or manufacturing brands.
As in most other industries this has created considerable overcapacity, and all leather markets are essentially mature markets.
Now, in the 21st century we see this changing again, with a greater dominance of highly competent Asian companies who are re-aggregating the industry elements into new network types.