Leather is an ancient, durable material created through a process of tanning animal rawhide to preserve it and make it pliable when dry. Many features of natural leather make it superior to synthetic products including durability, comfort, beauty, suppleness, and resilience. In addition, leather’s ability to patina and absorb body oils continues to enhance the appearance and makes it more beautiful over time.
Leather tanning is one of the oldest human activities. Primitive man hunted animals for food and used the hides for shelter, clothing, and footwear. Unfortunately, the skins became stiff at low temperatures and decayed with heat so a form of preservation was needed. Early forms of tanning involved rubbing in animal fats as the hide dried but this method provided limited preserving and softening. Later processes included smoking, formaldehyde tanning from burning green leaves and branches, drying in the sun, and dehydrating with salt but all had their limitations.
Vegetable tanning, otherwise known as bark tanning, with the tannin contained in tree bark created a durable, water repellent leather with large thick hides such as cattle, horse, buffalo, and pig. Tannins are natural compounds found in plants with antioxidant properties that assist in growth regulation. Though there are multiple theories on the origin of vegetable tanning, the modern form was most likely developed in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The earliest known example of vegetable tanning comes from Gebelen, Egypt, about 40 kilometers south of the Thebes on the Nile River, at a tannery thought to be over 5,000 years old.
Early leather was used for footwear, clothing, and military equipment including shields, saddles, and harnesses. Large quantities of leather articles including footwear and clothing have been discovered at Roman sites throughout Great Britain. A record of these early leathers can be found in Homer’s Iliad (set in 1,200 BC) where the god Ailos gave Odysseus a leather bag filled with storm winds to help him reach Ithaca. Vegetable tanned leather was an important tool in the development of civilization as it provided a durable, strong material that was pliable and it was heavily traded throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India.
Tanning methods gradually became more refined and efficient and the Industrial Revolution created a demand for new kinds of leathers such as belting leathers to drive machinery. In addition, the demand for softer, lightweight footwear and a general rise in the standard of living created a demand for supple, colorful leather. The traditional vegetable tanned leather was too hard and thick for these requirements and thus the use of chromium salts was adopted and chrome tanning became the norm for modern footwear and fashion leathers.