Before describing the making of leather by up-to-date methods, it may be useful to attempt to outline the evolution of the ancient art of tanning and dyeing skins. As everyone knows, leather is the preserved skin of various animals, but the origin of the conversion of raw skins into an imputrescible material will probably never be traced, and it can only be assumed that the processes necessary to produce leather from skins were gradually and, in most cases, accidentally discovered. Long before the Christian era, the ancient Egyptians had succeeded in bringing the manufacture of leather to remarkable perfection, and, had they at their service the wonderful machinery now available to the leather industry, it is certain that their productions would have lost little or nothing by comparison with modern leather. Happily, specimens of ancient Egyptian leather have been preserved in one national museum, and, although they are said to have been made at least 3,000 years ago, the colour and natural strength of the leather are unimpaired.
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Judging by the advanced state of the art of leather manufacture in the early Egyptian period, it is obvious that the origin of its manufacture must have considerably antedated that period, and, indeed, it would be necessary to go back almost to the creation of man to find the origin of the use of preserved animal skins for 2clothing. The primitive method would naturally consist of simply drying the skin, in which condition it would keep for many years unless it came into contact with moisture, though its horniness would no doubt cause the wearer much discomfort. It must not be supposed that the wearing of dried raw skins with the hair left on was impracticable, for even to-day some of the skins of fur-bearing animals used for personal adornment are cured in this primitive way, with the additional treatment with napthalene for disinfecting purposes and keeping away injurious insects and moths, the object of the limited amount of dressing being to preserve the natural strength and coloration of the fur. In such a condition, however, the skins are liable to acquire an unpleasant odour, and for hygienic reasons it is advisable that all skins in the hair used for clothing or rugs should be properly dressed, so that no decay sets in to loosen the hair or fur.
Even now, the process of simply drying hides and skins to preserve them before sending them to the tanner is largely practised, especially in hot climates and in those countries where salt is not readily available. This process of curing rests on the chemical theory of dehydration, which, in a modified form, has recently been successfully applied to some experiments in making leather.
Finding that the simple drying of skins would not properly prepare them for clothing, primeval man would naturally look for some means of treating them to conserve their original softness and pliability, and the nearest substances at hand would be animal fats and brains. It is almost safe to assume that this process was the first by which hides were preserved in a state differing from their original condition, the oxidation of the fatty matters naturally producing a 3partial tannage. The effect of smoke may also have been discovered in the earliest days of skin-curing, and it is reported that even now one or two tribes use smoke to preserve skins.
The somewhat imperfect preservation of the hides by this method would lead to further experiments being made, which evidently resulted in the discovery of the tanning effect of leaves, twigs, and barks of trees when soaked in water. It may be that the preservative effect of alum was discovered even before the vegetable tanning process, for the original Japanese white leather was made simply by steeping the raw hides in certain rivers which contained a bed-rock of alum. This primitive process is even followed to-day in one or two places in Japan, but the leather is afterwards treated with oil to impart tensile strength and increased suppleness. Strictly speaking, these hides are not leather when finished, and they are quite unsuitable for boots; but, being the toughest material known in the leather trade, with the possible exception of raw hide, it is particularly suitable and chiefly used for brace ends, and occasionally for ladies' belts. It must not be inferred from reference to this process that the Japanese only use this earliest method of making leather; on the contrary, they are producing all classes of leather, and especially belting and sole, by modern European methods, and it may not be long before their competition with American and European productions becomes an accomplished fact.
The available information seems to show that, until about thirty years ago, the development of the industry was mainly the result of accidental discoveries, and that the theory of tanning and leather-dressing was imperfectly understood until within quite recent times. Records of the leather trade 300 years ago prove that 4the methods then in vogue were of the rudest kind; further, they show that the practice of skimping the tanning process was not unknown in those days, for a contemporaneous author describes the horny condition of some of the leather which, despite the Government inspection, appeared to have passed into the old Leadenhall market for sale by the simple operation of "greasing the fist of the seller." Spain and Hungary had by that time established the manufacture of morocco and curried leather on a fairly sound basis, while a few years later France began to develop the industry of leather manufacture. Until about twenty years ago, waxed calf, crup, calf kid, and alum-tanned kid were staple upper leathers, together with the old Spanish cordovan leather. The sole leather used in England was chiefly the output of tanneries in the United Kingdom. About twenty years ago, however, the successful application of the chrome tanning process caused quite a revolution in the leather trade, with the result that about nine-tenths of the world's production of boot upper leather is chrome-tanned. The introduction of this process on a practical scale gave a great impetus to the work of chemists, who have since made some remarkable discoveries and have placed the art of leather manufacture on a scientific basis.
The old methods, however, are by no means obsolete, and it is somewhat remarkable to find that a British patent was taken out last year (1914) for converting hides and skins into leather by treating them with brains and smoke.