Horween Leather Company
Chicago in 1893 was exciting: Skyscrapers soaring 10 stories into the heavens. Department stores with counter after counter of everything a consumer could want. The World’s Fair, 633 acres of fairgrounds with 65,000 exhibits, drawing 27 million visitors.
That was the scene that greeted young Isadore Horween, one of the 350,000 Ukrainian immigrants to the U.S., many of whom, like Isadore, settled in Chicago because of the plentiful, well-paying jobs.
Isadore saw the leather on display at the World’s Fair and resolved there and then that he would produce leather of a higher quality—of the highest quality. He had been trained in tanning at home in Ukraine. He went to work at one of the dozens of tanneries in Chicago to hone his skills and to learn the business end of it.
Chicago was an ideal location for tanneries. It was the nation’s center for the meatpacking industry and, therefore, produced a boundless supply of raw hides. Nearby Wisconsin had the oak and hemlock bark needed for tanning. Waterways and railroads enabled convenient transport to markets all over the country.
Isadore worked in the tannery for 12 years. In 1905, he was able to fulfill his dream of having his own tannery: I. Horween and Co. He specialized in producing fine razor strops, the leather strips that sharpen razors (and knives and woodworking tools) by realigning and polishing the blade. By 1912, the safety razor had gained in popularity, and the demand for strops decreased. Undaunted, Isadore branched out into making leather for other products. The tannery was so prosperous that, in the 1920s, Isadore was able to move the company into a five-story, 90,000-square-foot building on the north side of the city near the Chicago River, where it remains today. The company’s name eventually became Horween Leather Company, which it remains today.
What also remains today are Isadore’s traditional Old World methods of tanning leather. Many companies trumpet “New,” “Improved,” or “Newly Improved” products. The Horween Leather Company is proud that they haven’t changed their tanning techniques in more than a hundred years. Why would they? Horween is known and valued throughout the world for superior, naturally tanned leather. Isadore’s vision lives on in the process.
Raw hides are salted to preserve them while they are in transit to Horween. When they arrive, workers trim the hides, burn off the hair in an acid-based solution, and remove any remaining flesh. The hides are chemically cleaned in a large drum, pickled for 24 hours to reach a pH level that is receptive to tanning, and softened (called bating). The hides are now ready for the step that turns them into leather—the tanning process.
Horween leather is vegetable tanned, the way it has been done for tens of thousands of years, from the time early humans first found a way to preserve and soften the animals hides that protected them from the elements. Horween uses a unique blend of tannins, astringent compounds extracted from bark that give the leather texture and that very special smell (and how we get the term “tanning”). Vegetable-tanned leathers get better as they get older. It’s almost as though they develop their own personality, warmer, silkier, and more beloved to the owner.
Horween is one of the few tanneries in the U.S. that does the whole process in-house. From the painstaking process of selecting flawless raw hides to treating them with their specially formulated solutions and chemical baths to delivering perfectly tanned leather. They do everything but raise the cows!
When Isadore founded his tannery, his was one of many. Throughout the years, the other tanneries closed for one reason or another. Synthetic leather was available. Latin America was producing cheaper leather. Some companies moved out of the country to save on labor costs. By 2006, Horween was the last tannery standing in Chicago, more successful than ever. Not simply surviving but thriving. And still in Isadore’s family. Today, his great-grandson is President of the company and his great-great-grandson is Vice President.
The market for leather has decreased some, but, just as Isadore prospered even as razor strops became obsolete, Horween has broadened its reach by creating customized leather for artisans and small businesses, such as OleksynPrannyk, who insist on leather of the finest quality.
Isadore had a vision. He would go to the United States; he would make a superior quality leather. He couldn’t have envisioned some of the products that his leather is used for today. It’s a perfect meeting of time-honored techniques and modern products: covers for iPhones, sleeves for MacBooks, backpacks that young people today cannot be without, and for pet parents who want the “best-dressed” dog or cat, beautiful, soft collars.