History of leather

The day a prehistoric man found out that he could use the hide of an animal, until then used only for food, to protect himself from the bad weather and from cold temperatures, the fascinating adventure of hide processing and leather production began. We all can all find traces of this adventure through thousands of years. Think of the leather clothes of prehistoric man found some years ago on the Similaun Glacier; or the Jewish tanners mentioned in the Holy Bible; or the leather pectorals of the Roman legionaries, or the leather shield of the Phoenix soldiers; consider the stout leather chairs typical of medieval furniture, or the hides hanging in the North American Indian camps which we have often seen in western movies, or Eskimo kayaks lined with sealskins: these are just a few examples, which are visible to everyone.

Who, instead, has a more technical background, can also appreciate the origin and the development of tanning process through the ages. When a caveman trimmed the flesh residuals from a hide with a stone knife, to avoid its putrefaction, he was performing the same operation which is today carried out with fleshing machines. When, already thousands of years ago, hides were air dried in wooden frames, it was a similar operation to today's toggling. When the Indians laid out the hides and the skins of the animals in holes made in the ground in alternate layers with wooden cortical flakes, leaving them for months till the rain waters permeated, penetrating everything with vegetable tannins, they were doing what today we call vegetable tanning. Still today we can see, for example in Morocco or in India, "tanneries" where hides are dyed in pits made in the clayey soil and filled with water and dyes, the same process used for centuries: the same process is performed today in a more industrialised way with the use of drums, but still it is a dying operation.

Of course, not all the phases of the process carried out today on the hides can be traced back throughout history, but a great part of these operations can certainly be traced back to what men were doing already hundreds or thousands of years ago.

We should also note that the historical presence of the tanning world was not only in its working environment but also in day to day language. For example, “I’ll tan his hide if I catch him” has always been a common expression. This is a sign that the job of the tanner is a very old one, so old to draw the attention of the authorities centuries before  ecologists protests. In fact, as early as 1259, the statute of the city of Bassano del Grappa prohibited the fleshing of hides on the bridge over the Brenta river. In 1490 in the statute of the city of Arzignano one could find several articles prohibiting the washing or soaking of hides in the Chiampo river or in the irrigation ditches, unless downstream from the village. Due to the bad smell typical of the tanning process, tanners have often risked "having their skin tanned", being considered as plague-spreaders. In fact in a book dated 1580, titled "Disputatio quod ex arte coriarum infici aer possit, et pestis procreari", the Venetian doctor Giovanni Costeo invites the Doctor's Collegium of the Venetian Republic to take precautions in the whole state of Serenissima against tanners, accusing them of "corrupting the air and causing plague".

As we can see, tanners have always had a tough life, and not only because of technical problems...