THE LEATHER CONNECTION | home
A HISTORY OF LEATHERGOODS
Leather Craft, Leather Work, either amateur or professional is an ancient craft which to some extent still uses the basic tools that were in use many centuries ago. In fact it is one of the oldest crafts known to mankind. One of the artifacts found in early settlements of primitive man are bone needles. At that period the human race were 'Hunter Gatherers' Thread & cloth were not in use at that period of our history. Protection from the elements was derived from the animals killed for food, the skins were made into clothing. As there was no thread the obvious choice of material to use with the bone needles was gut. Cat Gut to be more accurate, it's source the stomach sinews (mostly sheep). When we encountered the first Eskimo tribes and the North American Indians they were in effect Late Stone Age people and were producing highly developed clothing using leather and sewing with bone needles.
I taught at a Leather College during my working life and lectured on 'The History of Leather & Leathergoods' (which is a branch of the various leather industries & was a late developer). In fact it was the last area of this diverse industry to develop but this information will emerge as we proceed with this fascinating subject. There are other books & sources of information on this subject by other researchers (Most of them were not users of leather or craftsmen but rather pure researchers). That does not detract from their work as they were all thorough & meticulous in their research. My point is if they had a fuller understanding of the Craft their research would have benefited as they would have realised why certain things happened & more to the point were done. Not all experts will agree & I have no doubt that some will not agree with my research or views, but that's what makes historic research fascinating as no one can prove their theories which are all based on the small pieces of evidence left & which are occasionally found.
I am now a very ancient Master/Designer Craftsman from the Leathergoods Industry, still using Great Grandfathers tools. They say that everyone has a book in them, I have gone a step further than that I am at present writing a series of Craft Instruction Manuals to make these skills available to others before they are lost and while I am still on this planet. The first three are finished and available on this web site for purchase at a moderate cost. They are all written in a simple and straight forward and easy to follow format so that beginners will not find them difficult to follow. To my surprise fellow professionals are also purchasing them and raving over the detailed instructions which I find very flattering & humbling. I set up this site mainly to distribute the manuals (built it myself) &good few years ago, I added some Suppliers, Tanners, Organisations etc. that I thought might be of interest to my site visitors and like 'Topsy' it just grew with companies requesting to be included. it is now a large site with many categories and plenty of research and reference information as well as provision for the purchase of the craft manuals.
I would like to remind all visitors that unlike our ancient forefathers all animals skins used today are killed for meat and the skins and hides are a by-product of the meat industry if we did not use those skins it would not save those animals. The skins would be burnt or placed in land-fill sites adding to general pollution. Yes there are exceptions with some animals being allowed to be culled which do not enter the food chain, but in general all protected species are not used for leathergoods or shoes. They are protected by law and anyone that uses them are getting supplies from poachers (mainly in Africa & South America and made up locally).
In North America Trappers are licensed and they along with the Inuit (Eskimos) in the arctic do kill animals for their fur. It is quite possible for ladies to use artificial furs to go about in the winter in our northern hemisphere in fact Nylon furs even look better than the originals. Unfortunately for the severe conditions in the arctic regions they are no protection for the extreme conditions that exist. and animal furs are necessary to remain alive. there is another factor the economy of those regions plus the extreme conditions do not allow the inhabitants to grow crops and unfortunately the animals of the region provide them with food and clothing even in our modern world. Until the rest of use in the World provide the money to support these people with free handouts then they have no option but to carry on the way they have always done throughout the ages.
The Hunter Gatherers (Early Stone Age Man) as stated earlier killed for food and used skins for protection from the elements, the few items found lead most experts to put the early use of leather around the last 'Ice Age' some 500,000 years ago. I tend to disagree. we have no knowledge of when the 'Stone Age' began or how long it lasted. What we in the West refer to relates to that time when an earlier form of man roamed Europe & is now classified as 'Nethandatal Man' we also now know that there were two Stone Age periods Early & Late. Certainly the Artifacts found in our hemisphere relate to that late period. The main pointers being Flints some of which were obviously, hand knives & even more interesting 'Scrapers' which could only have been used to scrape the fat & flesh of the inside of a skin as well as where required the hair off the surface. Another interesting item is the stone axe heads these would not have been used in the bare hands but fitted to wooden handles, most likely down a split haft & must have been bound in position by strips of leather. As most workers with leather will know it shrinks when wet which would have been the perfect method of tightening the bindings. This was probably discovered by accident after an axe was left out in the rain or recovered after being dropped in water. Neither the wood or the leather have survived so this is not verifiable. A lot of work has been done on finding traces of early man in Africa & a few stone tools have been found some of which are spear points which at some period must have replaced the sharpened point on a stick. Again this takes us back to the process of binding the stone point to the stick.
However early or late man started to use leather it is more than probable that the first hunters & killers of animals for food or even as protection, as the skins from some animals were more than likely used as bedding & wrapped round the user to stay warm at night. From there it would have been a short step to draping it round them while moving around, & having used strips of leather to bind axe heads to handles it would have soon dawned on them to tie the leather to themselves to stop it falling off. Sewing it together to make clothing must however have developed in the late stone age. At this stage the process of tanning leather was not known. That meant that the leather would putrefy in time, that was not a problem to them as they could easily replace it. (I would not have liked to be down wind of them). The first type of tanning developed was Bark Tanning, (a modern form of this is still used today). It is quite feasible that an item or piece of skin was dropped into a small pool of water that contained a fallen tree that was rotting away, the bark of which had turned the water tannic and thus preserved the leather. it only needed someone to pick it up realize it had been preserved, make the connection that the tree bark and water were the reason. 'Bingo' we had one of our first Tanners.
It is worth noting that the Inuit (Eskimos) chewed the leather as this not only provided some sort of tanning but also softened the leather. My view is that saliva may have some tanning effect but it is also feasible that putrefaction was slowed down by the freezing conditions. The North American Indians also being Late Stone Age when we made contact with them Used all these methods of making axes, spears, etc. & made clothing out of Deer Skin & sewed it together the northerly tribes made tunics & trouser, the same clothing being adapted by the early settlers. It is interesting to note that some years ago in the far north of Canada a body was found wearing that form of clothing & it was at first thought that it was a trapper who had got lost & died from exposure. They were right in their assumption about the cause of his death what was a surprise was he died many thousand of years ago. But his mode of dress led them to think he was quite recent. It always amuses me that Stone age man is always depicted as wearing a loin cloth with a strap over one shoulder & with bare legs. I never believed this or accepted it & was proved right when they found the now famous Stone Age man at the bottom of a Glacier in the Alps He had on a tunic & trousers made from Goat Skin in a near identical style as worn by the tribes in north America, he was also many thousands of years old.
As the evolvement of mankind changed from Hunter Gatherers to Farming & growing crops and domesticating animals little changed for centuries, but clothes were also made from material as thread and weaving developed as this provided more flexibility of movement. The trades or crafts of Shoe Making and Saddlery developed as this was the only means of transport available. As early civilization spread and metal developed we passed through the Bronze and Iron ages, leather was still used for horse tack shoes (mainly a form of sandal) The Roman soldiers used it for hinges of linkage between their metal armour. It was also used as belts with loops for swords, hinges for doors on early houses, etc. But still no leathergoods as such were developing.
We have established that Bronze and Iron Age Man made good use of leather for footwear and harness (saddles did not arrive until late in that era) all this is recorder in freezes from ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean. Bridles, Reins, and a basic form of Harness can all be seen, but riders were either bare back or sitting on blankets. Saddles began to appear late in that period and are generally attributed to the Moors in North Africa as they developer quite elaborate and highly decorated saddles which they eventually took to the Spanish area when it was under their rule. (The Spanish took it to America, Mexico and South America But the ornate carving became influenced by the Native Tribes developing into the more natural depiction of the animals, birds, etc that are now part of the art form in that area).
Back again to these early leathergoods there were only 3 items that I was able to identify as being able to be classified as leathergoods related. Some carvings particularly Greek depict men carrying a water bag on one shoulder which was supported by netting, a small draw string bag attached to a belt round the waist, (That would have been used to hold coins) and one Greek carving showing a young man with a shoulder bag that looked remarkably like our modern shoulder bags or flight bags.
I will start with the stone carving of a young Greek carrying a shoulder bag, this was an isolated piece and not part of a frieze, he was wearing the normal Toga. It was not practice in those times to carry a change of clothing or personal items as they traveled light in those days. It is more than probable that the bag was a game bag used for carrying birds and other small game taken on a hunting trip. (It adds to my theory that there are no new designs only variations and that most things have been done before). The carvings depicting water bags supported with netting, it is amusing that most archaeologists ponder over why they would want to use a net round the leather water bottle. It is even stranger that no one ever considered asking a leather worker why that might have been done. The answer is quite obvious if you are aware of the properties of leather. They would have made the water container with the face of the leather inwards and the flesh outwards as used this way it would have been slightly more water proof, they may well have coated the surface of the leather with some form of water resistant treatment. (it was a practice in medieval times to make leather tankards and coat the inside with tar to make it waterproof) it is not known if they had that knowledge in that earlier period of history but a coating of Bees Wax would have provided some degree of water proofing without impairing the taste too much. However the water would start to work it's way into the leather fibers, and what happens to leather when it is wet? It stretches and what better way to stop it sagging than to place a net round it.
The coin purse a large circle of soft leather with holes round its edge and a thong of leather laced through the holes was used from Roman times (and possibly longer) right through to the Middle Ages to carry the coins used for all forms of currency. These draw string purses were tied securely to a belt round the waist and can be seen depicted in many carvings and paintings. Merchants and the wealthy were more likely to use them. Thieves would use a sharp knife to cut the thongs while an accomplice distracted the owner and run off with the purse. They were known as a 'Cut Purse' things don't change that much, we call them 'Pick Pockets' these days. There is one main difference in those days, they risked their lives if stopped, those days all they get is a caution.
All these personal items would have been made by the saddlers as a sort of side line from early times right up to and beyond the middle ages and the craft of the leather worker as such was still non-existent. That is quite understandable as personal items were few and did not present an opportunity for anyone to earn a living that way. Leathergoods did not start to evolve until we started to travel. A bland statement, mankind has always moved around, armies traveled, tribes migrated, lone travelers undertook journeys by horse. But people did not travel on a regular basis. In early & late Medieval times most people lived and died in their own village it would have been an event to visit the nearest town. If people were forced to move they did it by cart, uncomfortable and slow.
The First of the two branches of leathergoods developed in the large Seafaring cities as people started to travel abroad and populate the new developing colonies in America Canada and much later Australia. The Cabinet Makers in these large Ports around the coast of England began to make 'Trunks' these ranged from the simple rounded toped trunk mainly used by seamen to larger square one and big 'Wardrobe Trunks' in which clothes could be hung. Quite an industry emerged devoted to the production of trunks and cabinet makers changed over from making furniture to just producing trunks to satisfy the demand. But that is all they did just make trunks for people to go on long journeys. The trunks were made from wood using similar construction methods as they used to make items of furniture and the edges and corners were bound with metal strips, cheap ones with iron more expensive with brass. They were heavy and had handles at each end as it would need two people to carry them, labour was cheap in those days, so the wealthy could pay to have them carried for them. Few records relating to this part of history exist but we can trace this by the terminology used by cabinet makers. The handles, locks, etc. They put on trunks were referred to as 'Furniture' just as they were when fitted to chests, wardrobes, etc in fact the name migrated, as the pieces of home equipment made all began to be referred to as Furniture. The few trunks that are still used today still have this distinction as all additional attachments to the main article are referred to as furniture. They are also covered with a Rexene type material or plastic coated cloth instead of the original painted finish it is not clear when this change of finish took place.
The Cabin Trunks side of travel goods blossomed and then failed to expand in any other direction and is now a very small part of leathergoods, indeed it has all but died out. To find the real beginning of leathergoods as we know them today we must go back to the Saddlers and Harness Makers. Around the 17th century wealthy merchants and their families began to travel between cities by Stage Coach as well as traveling around their cities and country areas. Apart from shipping and canals the horse as a mode of transport reigned supreme. Saddlers, Harness Makers and Coach Makers became wealthy people supplying the countries needs. It is To Stage Coaches however that we owe the start of the development of leathergoods to. Once some people could travel more freely and faster than before they needed to take a change of clothing with them as well as other belongings. At first the wooden box on similar lines to those used on ships were adopted but they were smaller and square so that they could be strapped to the roof of a coach. However they did not prove durable as unlike their counterparts on ships they needed to be unloaded for every overnight stop. Being thrown of dropped from the top of a coach by some local yokel at the inn where they were stopping meant that a rigid sided box would split at the corners.
At some stage an enterprising Saddler or Harness Maker tackled this problem by making a case from leather which had its sides stiffened with thick cardboard and added locks. This proved lighter and far more durable than the wooden boxes as the board being flexible would bow outwards if dropped and resume it's shape. In fact the worst damage these cases could suffer was a dented corner if actually dropped directly on a corner. Saving the embarrassment of travelers having their belongings strewn on the street or the Inn yard. These Cases developed into a style with a shut over lid (That means that the lid closed over the sides of the body). The hinge of the lid was formed by the leather covering. These type of cases persisted right up to the second World War and were only ousted by the emergence of Air Travel which needed much lighter cases due to luggage restrictions.
Those old Shut Over Lid Cases were very heavy but in their hay day labour was cheap and the wealthy were still the main travelers so could easily hire a porter to carry their luggage. So we again have large containers (this time Luggage) involved in the start of the Leathergoods industry being made originally by Saddlers and Harness Makers who already had their own industry but were much more versatile than the trunk makers. That was understandable because they would have been making special equipment for farmers, and other people, such as bags for powder (early Guns) Saddle Bags for travelers and military, game bags, etc. That other people may have designed for their own use originally. Some saddlers in large cities found it more lucrative to switch from saddlery to making luggage. Then came The 'Industrial Revolution' as it is now called, & as people traveled more, carried more things, the arrival of the trains, The Royal Mail and letter writing, the advent of paper money, Ladies need to carry cosmetics, This saw an explosion of leather goods to fill all these needs. Business bags and folders, writing cases, wallets, handbags, etc. Instruments needed cases to protect them, binoculars, telescopes, cameras, etc. we had a flourishing industry now devoted to the production of leathergoods in the UK, Europe & the 'New World' as the developing colonies were referred to.
Nowadays a lot of these items are made from material or plastic as leather is more expensive and scarcer. But the same basic skills are required and the same workers are involved. When the use of leather was at it's height there was a problem with Tanneries polluting rivers with their discharges, (we were not alone in this as other industries were equally guilty). Now we understand the pollution problems involved modern laws prohibit this & the tanneries have a clean bill of health. I find it ironic however that the people who find the use of leather objectionable & support the alternative use of plastic are blind to the fact that Plastic & Nylon are by-products of the petroleum industry & pollute the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong I have no objection to the use of Plastic & Nylon they are both very useful materials & I have no doubt that in time they will find ways to rectify this problem as indeed they are attempting to do with emissions from cars. That is the basic history of Leathergoods. I have omitted dates as for this short explanation they are not relevant. There is also a lot more detail that could have been gone into but I don't wish to bore my readers. So how do we know the Saddlers & Harness Makers started all this? Well there are just a few old leathergoods companies left and their old records show that they were originally saddlery makers. But like the Trunk Makers the terminology used gives it away. Saddlers and Harness Makers call the Buckles, Squares, Bits, Stirrups, etc. 'Fittings' The same term is used by leather Craftsmen when referring to the, hinges, locks, buckles, studs, buttons, catches, bag frames, etc. We also describe these as 'Fittings' A lot of other terminology is the same or very similar and likewise the making methods & tools are the same. which I will not go into here.
If you have read this far without getting bored then I hope you all found this informative & helpful 'Regards Francis.