Leather is a very durable, and when properly treated, a very comfortable material. Since it is made from the hide of animals, it can come from cows, buffalo, deer, horses, goats, wolf, fox, rats, rabbit, even snakes, alligators, fish, and other animals such as giraffe and zebra (though these are much more rare). Most leather comes from cows. Let’s take a look at the history of leather craft and leather uses throughout history.

 

Leather in Prehistoric and Ancient Times (pre-50,000 BC)

Throughout time man has hunted animals and used as many parts of them as possible for living. In prehistoric and ancient times, man would generally use animal hides for clothing, with the fur still on them to serve as protection from the elements. Evidence for hideworking, scraping hides for tanning, exists from around 400,000 years ago.

The earliest known bone awls appear between 84,000 and 72,000 years ago in South Africa. Based on their wear patterns, it is believed they were used to pierce materials.

 

Leather in the Stone Age (50,000–3000 BC)

In the Stone Age, we begin to see some of the earliest confirmed leather tanning tools around 5,000 BC, in ancient Sumer (modern-day southern Iraq). The oldest known leather footwear was found in a cave in Armenia, dating from around 3,500 BC. That’s old! Animal hides would often be used for clothing, footwear, and shelters to protect people from the elements.

The History of Leather Craft - Oldest Leather Shoe - Image by the University College Cork
Oldest Leather Shoe – Image by the University College Cork

 

Leather in the Bronze Age (3000–1300 BC)

Stone tools were still very popular during this period, and leather becoming a more popular material to work with. It was still used for clothing (head coverings, shoes, and general wear), while also finding other protective uses such as in shields used in combat.

 

Leather in the Iron Age (1200–230 BC)

We see continued use of leather in other areas during this time, including for jewelry. One example is a braised arm band around the bicep of a man nearly 6’ 6” tall, quite tall for the time. His fingernails were well kept, signaling he was not frequently engaged in manual labor, and possibly of an upper class. Leather adornments and jewelry during this time might have been considered a luxury.

Iron Age Leather Sandal - Bergbau Museum
Iron Age Leather Sandal – Image by the Bergbau Museum

 

Leather in Ancient Egypt (3000–300 BC)

We see the first written references to leather in Ancient Egypt around 1,300 BC. Leather tanning was also a very smelly process, and as such, tanneries were located far away from where people lived so the odor would not pose an issue.

 

Leather in Ancient Greece (8th Century BC–0 CE)

In ancient Greece, leather craft still produced protection for the feet, this time in the form of the very popular sandal. It was continued to be used for defensive purposes in shields, and even expanding uses into bags in which to carry other items.

Various Footwear, Ancient Greece - New York Public Library
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1784 – 1785). Various Footwear, Ancient Greece. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-3319-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 

Leather in Ancient Rome (8th Century BC–476)

The Romans also used leather in large quantities, essentially as a raw material. It was used for clothing, shoes, shields and belts, harnesses, boots, saddles, and tents. The Roman military was a large consumer of the leather materials.

To produce the leather, Romans would either tan it to produce a softer brown material. Or, they would town it in alum and salt to produce a soft, paler material. Unprocessed hides provided by butchers could be turned to raw-hide and make a durable shoe-sole.

 

Leather in the Middle Ages (Europe, 4–1500)

Leather craft popularity and technology continued to develop through the middle ages. Much more was done with tooling, painting, dyeing, and carving. It’s used included clothing, knife sheaths, shoes, parchment, saddles, books, boxes and for some artistic uses too.

 

Leather in the Renaissance (1350s–1650s)

The Renaissance say a surge in leather craft and the many uses for leather goods. These included shaping, stamping, and moulding for art and functional purposes, as well as extensive use in coats, pants, bracers, dresses, hangars, frogs, pouches, satchels, quivers, hats, shields, and all sorts of bodily protection, as well as protection for horses and related saddlery and accessories.

 

Leather in the Enlightenment (1650s–1780s)

Leather was used as it was previously, with fashioning and finishing techniques improving. Used for book covers, it was also used to create fancier shoes as well as a myriad of military uses and functional purposes as well (satchels, pouches, aprons, bags, belts, hats, etc.)

 

Leather in the Industrial Revolution (1750s–1900)

This time period saw huge change in the leather craft industry. Machines of industry allowed much faster production of finished leathers. The machines themselves also benefitted from using leather in the machine belts that drove them. Leather production hit its peak during the middle of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1818 Patent Leather was developed. It is a type of coated leather with a high gloss finish, giving it a very pleasing appearance.

In 1858 Chromium tanning was invented, it utilized minerals and a much faster process than the existing vegetable tanning. It enabled leather to be produced faster, thinner, and softer.

 

Leather in the Industrial Revolution - Lohgerber_1880
Leather in the Industrial Revolution – Lohgerber_1880

 

Leather in the Modern Day (1900 – today)

Today, leather is used in high volumes and across industries. There are several processes for tanning including Vegetable, Chrome, Aldehyde, Brain, and Alum tanning. It is available in several grades, many colors, and used in virtually every area of life.

Almost everyone has something made of leather they use on a daily basis, it might be a wallet, keychain, saddle, apron, hat, or almost anything else. It’s incredible to think how far leather use has come over thousands of years. It’s also amazing how similar some of the processes to produce it and uses for it are, even so many years later. Leather truly is a timeless material.

 

Leather Has a Long and Useful History

So that’s the history of leather craft. If you are interested in how leather is tanned, I learned/shared about the leather tanning process here.

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