Leather is an incredible material that has been used throughout history for clothing and tools. The early processes used to make leather, and craft with it, remain very similar to some of those still used today. The history of leather and leather craft has very close ties to people all around the world.
The history of leather began about 400,000 years ago in Hoxne, England. It’s evolution can be traced around the world and through the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Ancient Times, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and into modern times.
During each period in history, cultures around the world have found valuable uses for leather in their daily lives. Let’s explore.
The History of Leather and Leather Craft
Leather has been used for thousands of years as a protective and useful material. Man has often used as many parts of animals as possible for survival and to develop tools for easier, and better living. Leather footwear, for example, allowed for easier walking and exploring.
When around animals large enough, their hides could be turned into clothing. In colder climates, the fur on top of leather provided excellent warmth. In warmer climates, hides could be used for shade and to help stay cool. Leather craft was mainly oriented around function.
As man evolved and societies built up, so did the uses for leather. Its applications would grow into leather armor, boots, satchels, tents, writing surfaces, harnesses, and jewelry. In some cultures leather was seen as a symbol of high status. Leather craft was becoming about both function, and visual appeal.
Further, as time went on, leather would become a staple in everyone’s life. Mass-produced leather shoes, gloves, jackets, bags, and accessories became widely available. Leather craft was now a full-fledged industry. It had a global supply chain for raw materials, and an equally large body of international consumers excited to buy and use leather goods.
The demand is so high that even “faux” leathers, synthetic leather material made from plastic and other compounds, are becoming popular to meet demand. They also serve as less-expensive, more animal-friendly options for leather sourcing.
Few materials have been around so long, and used so widely as leather. It’s incredible to see how the craft has evolved over time, and to learn how far it’s come from the earliest days.
History of Leather in the Stone Age (Pre-History to 3000 BC)
The stone age is one of the longest periods in more recent history. It covers millions of years, though we begin to see evidence of leather working, and the birth of leather craft, around 400,000 years ago.
The earliest stone tools known date to around 3.3 million years ago. They were flakes of stone, likely used for cutting. These stone flakes could have been used to skin hides from animals, and scrape them clean in an early step of tanning leather. Though it isn’t until around 400,000 BC that we begin to see evidence of more leather-specific tools.
The First Leather Tools
There were stone scraping tools found in in modern-day Hoxne, England. When examining the microscopic wear patterns on the scrapers from their use, researchers were able to conclude that they were likely used specifically in scraping hides. This scarping would help prepare them for preservation, tanning, and use.
If we look forward a few hundred-thousand years to around 82,000 BC, we begin to see bone awls in South Africa. Larger than sewing needles, the awls might have been used to pierce the hides of leather materials. The leather hides and furs could be joined together to make larger clothing and shelter coverings.
The First Common Leather Items
Around 33,000 BC the first sewing needles, with eyes for thread or some material that would function similarly, were found in Siberia. This provided a shift as between the awls to make holes and the needles to pass through thread, leather craft could begin to offer more to daily life. Items could be shaped to needs, be repaired, and allow creating thinking to find new uses for them. Fats could also be rubbed into the leathers to help provide some waterproofing qualities.
Some of the oldest operations, specifically for leather tanning, were found from around 5,000 BC in Sumer (modern-day Iraq). The oldest leather shoe (with leather laces!) dates to around 3,500 BC in Armenia. In Ancient Egypt, around 3,100BC, leather was used to make chariot harnesses and couplings.
The faster civilization grew, the more leather was used. Especially leading into the Bronze Age.
History of Leather in the Bronze Age (3000 BC – 1200 BC)
Stone tools, even those used for leather working, were still very popular in the Bronze Age. Although advancements in technology, and tools, started a move towards specialization and trade. One group with the knowledge and tools to do one thing very well (such as farming), could produce goods and then trade them with another group that had the resources, knowledge, and ability to make another.
With increased trade came a wider evolution of tanning animal hides into leather. Along with advancements in tanning came advancements in leather craft. Leather would be used for a larger variety of goods ranging from shoes, to capes, belts, hats, arm protectors (when bow shooting), shields, and shelters.
As an example of the leather craft of the period, a leather shoe was discovered from around 1300 BC. It was made from a single piece of leather, with holes for laces. The back of the shoe was still laced up (forming the curve around the back of the ankle). Tools were uses to remove hair from the leather, leaving a smooth finish. And fine combs, likely made of bone, were used to finish off the leather’s surface. These are large advancements in the art of leather craft.
History of Leather in the Iron Age (1200 BC – 550 BC)
The Iron age saw continued growth of community and population. Farming became more advanced which allowed for easier food production and easier support of families. With more people came an increased need for goods, including leather goods.
Small cities grew larger, there was additional leisure time, and some of the clothing grew more colorful. Leather shoes and sandals with leather laces were still very popular, as were belts, capes, and even jewelry.
While leather can degrade and disintegrate over time if exposed to the elements, there is one example of a leather arm band dating from around the end of the Iron Age. It was worn by the “Old Croghan Man”, a 6’ 6” male. That was extremely tall for the time. His fingernails were well-groomed, signaling he was in a privileged social class.
Around his upper arm he wore a braided leather arm band. It included bronze mounts that both held the leather together, and served a decorative function. This was quite a discovery to find leather that was worn thousands of years ago. Leather craft was surely evolving.
History of Leather in Ancient India (3000 BC – 600 BC)
The Indian culture is steeped in history and very closely integrated with world history. Leather was also very valued in ancient India. Early Hindu scriptures were written in the sanskrit language, captured in volume called “Vedas”.
Around 3000 BC, in the Rig-Veda, there is reference to items made from leather. These included bottles, and water-carrying bags called “mashaks”. Other literary references from the period also mentioned common articles made from leather for use in everyday-life, such as leather bands, straps, laces, and similar cord-like implements. It was clear that leather was very respected and needed during this time.
History of Leather in Ancient Egypt (2700 BC – 350 BC)
Ancient Egyptians generally wore very light clothing, given the warm environment they lived in. Leather accessories were available, though usually to wealthier individuals with higher social standing. For example leather sandals were worn by the wealthy. Less wealthy individuals wore sandals made of woven papyrus.
Other used for leather were common in this period. Chariot harnesses and couplings were fashioned from the strong material. Working on this type of leather craft would have required some level of tanning knowledge and cutting/joining skill. Especially on equipment that would be traveling quickly and exposed to rough riding.
Leather jewelry was also available to the wealthy. Another interesting use is leather as a writing surface. Some examples have been found where leather was used to create Egyptian manuscripts. These are long, rolls of leather. When unrolled, they would feature images and words inscribed onto them, reflecting on life and culture of the time. Think of it like an early, rolled-up book.
Some research points to Egypt being the origin of some plant-based leather tanning processes. In this time period we begin to see more widespread, and specialized used of leather. Thankfully, a fair amount of examples survived that allow us to analyze and learn more about them.
History of Leather in Ancient China (1600 BC – 200 BC)
China has long been a very advanced civilization. It’s history goes back thousands of years, and along with it the history of leather. As with other cultures at the time, China used leather for common dress items such as shoes. They would later use it for making boots.
Of key interest, is the Chinese leather armor. Seeking to protect themselves in battle, and provide an edge over the opponent, leather crafters would produce elaborate leather tunics for warriors to wear.
Armor was generally custom-fit to the wearer, and made cow hides. Other examples from the period include armor made from rhinoceros and buffalo hides. The extent of leather protection did not stop there.
Leather armor was also fashioned for shields and helmets. Even armor for horses was crafted, providing full protection for both soldier and horse when engaged in battle. This is a significant use of the material in the history of leather, also considering the amount needed for a leather crafter to produce full suit of armor for person and horse.
History of Leather in Ancient Greece (800 BC – 200 BC)
Citizens in ancient Greece often enjoyed a warmer climate. Staple clothing generally consisted of a light linen tunic. Shoes weren’t always worn, though when needed or preferred, lace-up leather sandals were a common option and provided good protection for the feet.
It is believed that the vegetable tanning process with developed by the Greeks. It possibly could have begun in Egypt, and the knowledge refined further. Rome would later adopt similar practices. Vegetable tanning involves using naturally derived tannins, elements from plants and bark, to help process the leather.
The Greeks would use leather for various items including sandals, shields, protective wear, and bags for carrying items. Chariots, other military gear, and cavalry units likely had some leather straps and supports, as well as tack on/around ships as needed. Although not commonplace, some athletic-focused clothing was made from leather to provide increased support.
History of Leather in Ancient Rome (750 BC – 500 CE)
With Rome being one of the most complex, and advanced civilizations in history, there is surely a place for leather. By this point in time, there were highly efficient social structures in place that would allow for specialized, and high volume production of items. This included foods, clothing, and personal accessories.
Hides for leather often came from butchers, who processed the animals for food and their additional valuable parts. Along with vegetable tanning, the Romans also utilized another method of tanning referred to as alum tanning. Alum is a salt compound that helped produce a softer leather that also more easily accepted dyes.
This is where the more common, and still used, aluminum tanning originated. Dyes could be used to product brightly-colored leathers that had a great visual appeal. As cities became more populated an industries built up, we begin to see the separation of some working and living neighborhoods.
The leather tanning process, especially in ancient Rome, produces some very unpleasant smell. As such, one would often find the tanneries located some distance from living quarters and dwellings, to help maintain a more enjoyable standard of living.
Leather in ancient Rome was also used in volume for the formative Roman army. Horses would need reins and straps, chariots would need leather fixtures, and soldiers would need belts, sandals, boots, and protective equipment. Leather was a very common, and helpful material in the Roman Empire.
History of Leather in the Dark Ages (500 CE – 800 CE)
The Dark Ages saw advancements in leather craft. Leather was being used for even more purposes, and the skills used to work with it getting even finer.
Shoes began to be more closed in design, and made from multiple pieces of leather (joining a sole to the upper). Previously, many shoe designs were a single piece of leather laced up around the foot with leather laces.
Bags and straps of various sizes were still very common. During this time we start seeing leather used for the backs of seats and chairs. Usually with a soft material behind it, it provided for a durable and comfortable surface on which to rest.
So while there wasn’t extensive intellectual progress, as we’ll see later during the Renaissance, the history of leather and leather craft was still very much evolving during this time.
History of Leather in the Viking Age (800 CE – 1000 CE)
The vikings extensively used leather. While not as common as wools for clothing, it still saw frequent use in footwear and accessories. Shoe styles varied greatly offering different fits, looks, and levels of protection. Ankle and calf-height boots would also be popular. Leather laces would wrap around the footwear and help secure them in place.
Leather would be used to make hats to protect the head and retain heat in colder temperatures. Belts and bags were common items also made from leather. Pouches could be used carry personal items and whatever was needed for a typical day.
As we see in other civilizations, leather also has a common place in military and protective uses. Vikings used leather to make shields, sword scabbards, knife sheathes, slings, straps, helmets, saddlery, and protective garments.
These provided some armoring of the soldiers. Leather goods were not available to all soldiers, though to those who had the means to acquire it, there were definite benefits above the standard cloth gear.
History of Leather in the Middle Ages (1000 CE – 1300 CE)
Leather craft and popularity continued to grow in the middle ages. Here, we begin to see much more practice around evolved leather working, such as tooling, carving, dyeing, and painting.
We see applique, where items are attached to leather both for functional and decorative reasons. Around the same time there are advancements in sewing implements and threads. For example, using boar bristles as needles. They are thick, flexible, and strong, allowing them to be passed through leather materials while pulling thread along with them.
The history of leather in the 11th century wasn’t limited to just leather. The threads and types used see advances, and specialized metal tools for leather become more popular. These include those for marking and making holes through the material.
Additionally, the Middle Ages saw a visually popular trend that is related to leather. This is the design of the Crakow shoe. This shoe has a very elongated, often curved end with a pointy tip. While some might think they look odd, or even humorous, at the time they served a very important social function. The longer and more curved the toe, the higher up on the social class someone was. For royalty, some toes were several feet long! That’s a lot of leather for a shoe 🙂
Also during this time, leather trade guilds were starting to form. The leather craft required a fair amount of knowledge to tan, process, dye, and work with the leather. It also required specialized tools to work with.
It was deemed important to create a way to keep this information within groups. First, it helped to develop a means by which to pass knowledge on to future generations. Also, it helped protect that knowledge and the livelihoods of leather crafters.
History of Leather in the Renaissance (1300 CE – 1650 CE)
The Renaissance brings vast intellectual growth to the world, driven from Italy. Leather use, craft, and tooling expanded in virtually all areas. Function was meshed with form, ideas with new concepts, material with new uses.
Ornamental seating utilizing leather, turning basic chairs into pleasing sights and status symbols. Leather guilds became more popular, and tanning industries being to build up around Tuscany and Florence. Leather stamping, moulding, and shaping was performed both for function and for art.
Increased global trade led to more localized specialization, and refinement of both process and craft. Leather was used for all sorts of items. From functional shoes, belts, and clothing, hats, pants, jerkins (vests work over clothes), capes, overcoats, bags, cloaks, satchels, and book bindings.
Leather straps and ties were used across military needs, including some of the attachments and harnesses under armor. Some of these included bodily protection, saddlery, shields, quivers, frogs, and pouches.
With the renaissance came popularity of rarer, more expensive materials such as silk, satin, and velvet. Leather accessories and finished-goods still sat in the upper class of materials, reserved mainly for nobility and the wealthy.
History of Leather in the Enlightenment (1650 CE – 1760 CE)
Leather and leather craft during the Enlightenment shifted a bit from the technical evolution of things to the socio-political side of things. With many solid leather industries established around the world, and major world powers settling and controlling new lands, the focus on was controlling production, distribution, and the commercial side of leather.
Around 1700, England tried to force the American colonies to use British hides and purchase British leather goods, restricting free sourcing and manufacture. Around the world, regional styles of leather and design of goods were gaining global attention. France made high-fashion shoes. Spain was making refined leather armor. The world powers were beginning to become commercial powers and leather was certainly a part of it.
For leather goods made during this time, things included bags, satchels, boots, hats, shoes, belts, all sorts of military bags and accoutrements, straps, and ties. Leather trim was on trunks, on the grips of weapons, knives, and swords. It was decorative for photo frames, and used extensively for binding books. The history of leather took a leap forward in the 17th century. As integrated into daily-life as ever, leather didn’t miss a beat.
History of Leather in the Industrial Revolution (1760 CE – 1840 CE)
The history of leather in the 18th century and Industrial Revolution brought about sweeping global change. The introduction of widespread mechanized technology allowed industries to produce much more, much faster.
This drove the need for resource and raw materials that were needed to produce, run, and maintain these machines. It also led to the development of machines to make many manual production steps easier, faster, and more accurate.
Machines helped make the leather tanning process faster.They were also used to split leather (separating layers of the hide) in a method that produced clean, smooth, accurate, and repeatable results. finished leathers were faster than ever to produce.
Regions built up around the new technology, with tanneries and production facilities grouping together near the resources needed for production (mainly hides and sources of water and tanning compounds). This was especially true around the central states in the American colonies. As a growing nation, centralized industry helped feed the countries development.
Patent leather was developed in 1818. It is a type of coated leather with a high gloss finish, giving it a very pleasing appearance. This would become a very popular, new type of leather for shoes.
Leather was used for everything it was before, including clothing, bags, hats, belts, straps, ties, military accoutrements, lace, boots, shoes, books, horse tack, saddlery, leather carriages, leather coaches, and many everyday items. Even leather belts to drive the now-popular machines drove a new and increased demand for the material. During the industrial revolution, global leather production reached it’s peak in all of history.
History of Leather in the Victorian Age (1840 CE – 1900 CE)
Even as leather production would slow from it’s peak during the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian age would still have contributions to the history of leather and leather craft.
In 1858 Chromium tanning was invented, it utilized minerals and a much quicker process than the widely practiced vegetable tanning method. Also referred to as “chrome tan”, this process enabled leather to be produced faster, thinner, and softer. All of those qualities were good for the leather industry.
This would be the beginning of a major shift in leather tanning methods. Over time, chrome tanned leather would rise in popularity and eventually overtake vegetable tanned leathers in overall production volume. As of the early 2000’s, only about 10% of tanned leather is vegetable tanned.
With chrome tanned leather production on the rise, the market was ripe for expansion into leather crafters making leather goods for nearly every consumer need imaginable. This history of leather in the 19th century would change for good.
Additionally, the first faux (synthetic) leather was developed in Germany, called Presstoff. It was manufactured from uniquely-treated paper pulp. It generally functioned well, though would begin to come apart during applications where exposed to moisture, and repeated flexing.
History of Leather in the Progressive Era (1900 CE – 1950 CE)
By 1925, the average leather tanner in the USA had around 100 employees. There were about 560 large-scale leather tanneries in the Unites States at that time.
Mechanized processes were getting better, so good that some were able to replace that hand-stitching usually required on some leather goods such as books, shoes, gloves, and bags.
Employees needed to run the machines increased, though the leather craft that had developed over thousands of years began to be turned over to machines. The hand-skills, honed over time, were overtaken by tireless machines, churring out product non-stop.
The quality of machine work might not reach the fine level of some hand work, though for the majority of needs and the majority of customers, it was good enough and a major shift in the types of labor needed by the leather industry was seen.
Added to this, the surge in technological developments coming out of two world wars led to a tremendous amount of new materials entering the commercial pipeline. These included plastics and rubbers, two materials that would directly impact the need for leather.
History of Leather in Modern Times (1950 – Current)
With the world wars over, and global focus on stability and prosperity, the global marketplace surged. Exports and imports were on the rise, and certainly included leather. For more on the modern-day leather industry, click here to read the article I wrote.
While synthetic leathers had been around since the 19th century, in 1963, the first major faux (synthetic) leather was produced by DuPont. It was generally made from a polyester (plastic fiber) base with a polyurethane (plastic) coating.
Later, “leatherette”, another synthetic leather made from covering fibers with PVC (a plastic) was introduced. Now, “leather” didn’t even need leather to be produced.
More and more companies were using synthetic leathers, rubbers, and plastic for products. There was natural decline in demand for real leather. Also, the global economy was shifting out an outsourced model. The theory is that buy shifting production to countries with lower-wages and materials costs, they can be produced more cheaply resulting in a cost savings.
This led to a shift in leather production to developing countries, who would produce leathers less expensively. Between manufacturers using different raw materials (plastics and rubbers), and leather production shifting to other countries, the once burgeoning leather industry in the United States slowed dramatically.
By 1997, employment in leather-related industries fell by almost 50%. United States imports of leather shoes rose to 82% by 1995. So only 18% of leather shoes purchased in the country were made in the country. That’s a huge difference from the 1850’s when almost 16% of all workers employed in America worked in the leather-related trades.
Leather, while still valued for it’s unique characteristics and high-quality goods that could be produced, became just one material among many in day-to-day life.
What a Ride!
What an incredible journey! Leather has taken us throughout time, throughout cultures, and throughout world change. It’s a material that reflected the need to survive, levels os social class, and levels of luxury.
It’s helped fight wars, win freedoms, and drive global commercial change. It cover the books we’ve read, and inspire the clothing we wear. Even to this day, leather has touched everyone in some way. A true testament to this material that is ever a part of human history, and the history of leather.
When was leather invented?
Leather was “invented” around 400,000 years ago. There is evidence of leather being worked in an area of modern-day Hoxne, England. Research has concludes that stone tools found were likely used to scrape hides, which is directly related to preparing/tanning leather.
How was leather discovered?
Leather was likely discovered through observation. It’s possible that many years ago someone noticed that an animal skin left in the sun begins to dry out. Thinking how to apply related knowledge from nature, and trial/error, they tested ways over thousands of years to make the hide last longer.