History of Leather

The story of leather begins as early man used the skins of animals to protect their bodies and feet 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. By stretching and smoking them, they eventually got a longer lasting skin, but this was still not tanned leather, as we know it today.

There is no written record of who discovered the tanning process, so it is assumed tanning was discovered by accident. Perhaps some raw hides were left in water and leaves or bark of 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 armour, harnesses, carpets, tents and water bags.

The ancient Egyptians became very skilled in working leather and used it for sandals, belts, bags, shields, cushions and chairs. The Romans and Greeks were also very good tanners using leather for boots, armour and caps. Slowly the knowledge of tanning spread to all parts of the world. Britain 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 (aluminium) salts, most tanning was done by the vegetable process using the bark of trees that contain tannin. The process was sped up with the introduction of quebracho (an Argentine tree), greatly shortening the vegetable tanning process.

Modern-day techniques remain loyal to these historical methods. Although there were quite dangerous chemicals used to tan leather, these practices are no longer accepted and we at C. A Cornish ensure the leather we use adhere to strict European Directives and that the leather is produced in compliance with the REACH (Registration, Evaluation and restriction of Chemicals) legislation.

For more information, please read our Leather Policy.