The Leatherworker in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg Being an Account of the Nature of Leather, & of the Crafts Commonly Engaged in the Making & Using of It.
Being an Account of the Nature of Leather, & of the Crafts commonly engaged in the Making & Using of it.
Williamsburg Craft Series
Published by Colonial Williamsburg
in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg
Once upon a time there lived in France apoet-bureaucrat by the name of CharlesPerrault, who wrote fairy tales. He calledone of them Cendrillon ou la Petite Pantouflede Verre, and ever since 1697, for that wasthe date of Cinderella’s appearance in modern literature,her glass slippers have been a puzzle.
Not to children, of course. Generations of youngsters havematter-of-factly accepted as the most natural thing in theworld that magic slippers should be of glass (verre). Theirelders, however, being less sophisticated about such things,have learnedly quibbled over whether the slippers weren’treally supposed to be of vair, the costly white squirrel furonce worn only by royalty.
After all, logic and reason and custom and tradition saythat footwear has been made of leather since time unknown.And who ever heard of making shoes out of glass?
Well, who ever heard of making bottles out of leather,for that matter? Or of fire hose made of leather? Or ofleather cannons?
Yet leather has been put to these and many other usesover the centuries of recorded history. A list of them wouldbe almost endless, and so would a list of the sources ofleather. The following compilation, doubtless far from complete,could have been (it was not) drawn up by an Englisheighteenth-century or colonial American leatherworker:
shoes, boots, moccasins, galoshes
leggings, breeches, aprons
shirts, coats, caps, hats, gloves
belts, suspenders, points and laces
fur items, fur trim
Shelter and furnishings
wall hangings, door curtains
chair seats and backs, beds
upholstery, cushion covers
fur rugs, fur bedding
saddles, bridles, harness (including that for human porters)
carriage upholstery, wagon covers
scupper leathers, antichafing binding on sailing gear
wineskins, waterbags, bottles
jugs, mugs, buckets
inkwells and inkhorns
bags, purses, food pouches
trunks, boxes, caskets, coffers
snuff boxes, dice cups
shields, scabbards, sheaths
bowcases, quivers, gun buckets
helmets, cartridge boxes
powder horns and buckets
bookbinding, parchment, vellum
hornbooks, bellows, hinges
pump washers, airtight floats
cricket balls, drumheads, banjos
Leather differs not only according to the species of creatureit comes from but according to the age and sometimesthe sex of the animal, and also the part of the animal’s bodyit once covered. Its characteristics vary depending on thetype of processing it undergoes—whether by liming, tanning,tawing (mineral tanning), or shamoying (oil tanning)—anddepending on how these processes are varied and combined.
Leather can be stiff as bone or supple as silk, nearly aswaterproof as rubber or capable of sopping up water likea sponge, tough and unyielding or resilient and stretchy,smooth and translucent as paper, deeply grained in manypatterns, or softly napped. It may be snowwhite or rangethrough hues of tan and red to dark brown. It may bemolded, carved, and colored in endless array. As leatherworkersfor many centuries have been fond of remindingthe world, “There’s nothing like leather.”
THERE’S NOTHING LIKE TANNING
Homer’s Iliad contains what may be the earliest survivingliterary reference to leathermaking. Describing theswaying fight for possession of Patroclus’s corpse, the author(in Pope’s translation) wrote:
As when the slaughter’d bull’s yet reeking hide,
Strain’d with full force, and tugged from side to side
The brawny curriers stretch; and labour o’er
The extended surface, drunk with fat and gore....
The untidy process here alluded to as currying was doubtlessone of man’s first methods of making leather. It consistedof laboriously working into a hide or skin such greasyand albuminous substances as animal fats, brains, blood,milk, and so forth. The product, although technically not“leather,” had many of leather’s characteristics; this is aparadox that calls for some definitions. In the terminologyof the trade:
Hides are the pelts of the larger animals—cattle, horses, buffalo, elephants, and so on;
Skins come from smaller animals—calves, sheep, goats, pigs, deer, beaver, etc.—and from birds, fish, and reptiles;
Leather is any hide or skin after it has been tanned.
As the legislature of colonial Virginia put it in 1691 (in anact that will shortly engage our attention again):
And for the avoyding of all ambiguities and doubts, which may anddoe grow and arise upon the difinition and interpretation of this wordleather, Be it enacted and declared, that hydes and skinns of oxe, steer,bull, cow, calfe, deer, goats and sheep being tann’d shall be, and everhath been reputed and taken leather.
The key word is “tanned.” Like any organic matter, skinsand hides will soon begin to decay unless they receive somekind of preservative treatment. They may be simply scrapedand sundried—or salted or smoked or soaked in brine orin slaked lime. From some of these processes may comeextremely tough and durable products—rawhide, parchment,and vellum are limed—but they are not leather becausethey have not been tanned.
TaneurThis illustration from Diderot’s great eighteenth-century French encyclopediashows the essential operations in a tannery: A) washing hides in a stream;B) scraping hair or flesh from a hide on the “beam”; C) soaking hides in aseries of lime pits; D) bedding hides in a tanning vat with a layer of shreddedbark between each hide; E) stirring lighter hides in a hot water tanning solution.
Tanning brings about within the fibrous structure of apelt certain chemical and physical rearrangements that arestill imperfectly understood. Their effect, however, is torender the pelt permanently imputrescible, pliable whendry, and capable of sustaining repeated wetting withouthurt. The agents responsible for the transformation, knownas “tannins,” are found in almost all plants, in certainminerals, and in various readily oxidizing oils.
TANNING AND CURRYING
The ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians,central Asians, and Chinese all knew tanned leatherand used it. But who first discovered how to tan it, whenthat happened, and where, must remain forever unanswered,since the invention of tanning came before the inventionof written records. Primitive leatherworkers probably stumbledon different processes at different times and places, andquite possibly a number of widely separated workers discoveredthe same processes independently.
Until the invention of chrome tanning in the second halfof the nineteenth century, little change had taken place inthe three basic tanning methods for at least two thousandyears. The most widely practiced method involved the useof vegetable tannins. Occidental tanners employed oak bark,gallnuts, and sumac leaves among their chief sources; otherplants rich in tannins are found in every continent.
Mineral tanning with alum, called “tawing,” has been inuse since earliest time in Babylonia, Egypt, and probablyChina. Because the leather so made is snow white, workersin this specialty gained the name of “whitetawyers.” Tawedleather, although soft and stretchy, is very strong; quiteappropriately, one of his eighteenth-century contemporariesdescribed Richard Bland, the Williamsburg lawyer andpolitical pamphleteer, as “staunch & tough as whitleather.”
Currying—whatever it may have meant to Homer (or toAlexander Pope)—is not a method of preparing hides and6skins from fresh-slaughtered animals, but a complex of processesfor treating leather already tanned. These processesinclude smoothing the leather, paring it down to even thicknessoverall, especially working fatty matter into it forpliancy and water resistance, and giving it whatever surfacedressing, color, and finish its intended use calls for. Prominentamong such uses in the eighteenth century were shoeuppers, harness and saddlery, upholstery, trunkmaking, andbookbinding.
Two styles of carriage harness, one quite elaborate, the other fairlysimple; both of the “breast-collar” rather than the now more familiar“neck-collar” type. Diderot.
CHIEF LEATHER CRAFTS
A list compiled in London in 1422 recorded 111 groupsor guilds of merchants and craftsmen then active in thatcity. Fourteen of these concerned themselves with leatheror with articles made of it in large part:
loriners (or lorimers)
Of these, only tanners, curriers, cordwainers, and saddlersshowed up prominently in colonial Virginia—although alwaysas individual craftsmen, not as members of an organizedcraft or guild.
Cordwainers—the word comes from cordovan, a kind ofsumac-tanned leather much favored in medieval Englandand made originally in the Spanish city of Cordoba—wereshoemakers. The craft is to be carefully distinguished fromthat of cobbling, which is the mending of shoes. Althoughpractically all colonial Virginia shoemakers also did shoerepairing, the trade of cobbling was looked on, especially bycordwainers, as inferior in status.
Curiously, the initial groups of colonists sent to Jamestownby the Virginia Company lacked any leather craftsmen.Somehow the London “adventurers” thought that thereal adventurers to America could get along without tanners,curriers, or shoemakers. Just how the colonists were expectedto acquire shoes grows even more puzzling in lightof the English law that forbade exportation of goods madeof English leather.
In a few years, however, some tanners and shoemakershad been sent over and were at work in Jamestown. But notenough of them came or else (as is more likely) they abandonedtheir trades to grow tobacco. A 1625 report declared8that an extreme shortage of shoes and other apparel endangeredthe health of the population. Soon thereafter theVirginia Assembly took the first of many steps to promoteleathermaking and other manufactures in the colony.
Sometimes with the support of the home government,sometimes without, the assembly passed laws in 1632, 1645,1658, 1660, 1662, 1680, and 1682 forbidding the export fromVirginia of hides, skins, and certain other commodities. Theyhoped in this way to assure ample supplies of the rawmaterials and thus encourage colonial craftsmen to makemore of the needed products.
The legislation, in actuality, had less effect in Virginiathan in England. Colonial craftsmen continued to preferleathers imported from England, reputed to be the best oftheir kinds, for quality work—and to prefer tobacco growingto leatherworking anyway. But English merchants andcraftsmen repeatedly protested the threat of competitionin a market they felt belonged solely to them, so eachcolonial law in turn was either repealed on orders fromLondon or simply allowed to lapse.
The 1662 effort, somewhat more elaborate than the others,had no greater success in the end. At Jamestown the legislaturethat year passed three laws intended to increaselocal manufactures. One barred the export of hides, wool,and iron; another exempted from taxation any craftsmanwho followed his trade and did not plant tobacco; the thirdrequired each county in the colony of Virginia to erect“one or more tanhouses, and ... provide tanners, curryersand shoemakers, to tanne, curry and make the hides of thecountry into leather and shoes.” The manager of this tradefor each county was to allow the people two pounds oftobacco for each pound of dry hide they brought to thetannery, and “sell them shoos at thirty pounds of tobacco[for] plaine shoos, and thirty five pounds of tobacco for[shoes with] wooden heels and ffrench falls of the ... largestsizes, and twenty pounds of tobacco per pair for the smallershoos.”
CordonierAs the shoemaker needed an assortment of lasts on which to make shoes of differingsizes and shapes, so the bootmaker needed “boot legs” resembling his customers’calves. The engraving also shows a variety of eighteenth-century boot styles, the moreformidable being heavy military boots. Diderot.
BEFORE FREE ENTERPRISE
The seventeenth century ended with legislation of a differenttenor. “An act declareing the dutie of Tanners, Curriersand Shoemakers,” passed in 1691, regulated workingprocedures and set quality standards to an extent remarkableeven at a time when detailed governmental regulationof economic activity was normal.
Tanners, this law decreed, were not to leave hides toolong in the lime-pits, nor put them into the tan-vats untilthey had been thoroughly cleansed of lime; curriers werenot to work “any hyde or skin not being thoroughly dry,”and were not to skimp on the amount or quality or freshnessof the grease they used in currying; cordwainers or shoemakerswere to use only leather that was “well and trulytann’d and curryed,” and were to make their boots, shoes,and slippers “well and substantially sewed with good