U. S. Tanning Industry
Leather has been a part of the human journey from far back into prehistory, and it has been significant in the journey of the United States its first colonial villages to the present day. Those centuries and leather’s role in our culture would take up volumes. So here is a brief overview of some of the changes that occurred in the U. S. and the tanning industry.
The Europeans brought tanning with them in the 17th century when they settled in the New World, from New England to Virginia, Of course, we know that hides were tanned on this continent for tens of thousands of years before that. With all due respect to the Native Americans, we’ll start our tale here with the colonial times.
The New World must have seemed like the Garden of Eden for tanners, with raw material so easily available, both animals and bark. Tanning was crucial to the survival of the colonists. They needed protection from the elements and, most important, a ready supply of boots and shoes. Farmers needed saddles and harnesses. Small tanneries were soon dotting the landscape, temporary tanneries—the tanneries moved on once the resources in one location were depleted.
In those days, it could take up to a year turn a hide into leather. Everything was done by hand: cleaning the hides and liming off the hair, scraping off the flesh, soaking the hides in what they called “ooze” (ground up bark and water), washing and stretching them, beating them into softness with a mace and buffing them up to a shine. All while breathing in the stench of decaying skins.
In New Amsterdam (now New York City), the Dutch established the first large-scale tannery along the East River. It wasn’t long before the area was crowded with tanneries, leather manufacturers and shoe merchants. It was called the Swamp due to the fumes that lingered in the air. Those early industrial tanneries processed 1,000 to 2,000 hides a year.
By 1800, there were 2,000 tanneries, and they were a major component of the U.S. economy. Farmers had a market for the hides of slaughtered animals. The tanneries provided employment for immigrants who were willing to work hard to succeed in the “land of opportunity.” Most tanneries had boarding houses where immigrants lived while working 12 hours a day, six days a week. A new trade arose, “bark peelers” who set up camps in forests and stripped the trees from dawn to dusk.
The 19th century brought major changes to the tanning industry. Inventions made the work easier and made the leather more affordable for the average person. For example, a machine was invented that could split 100 hides in one day. Previously, one man split four hides per day. There were machines that could de-hair, scrape, beat, split, tan, dry, and finish leather.
Other changes were organizational. Small tanneries began to consolidate, so that together they could afford the expensive machines, employ a larger work force, and produce more leather. That continued into the 20th century: In 1850, 6,664 tanneries produced $40 million worth of leather. In 1899, 1,306 tanneries produced $204 million. By 1919, 680 tanneries produced $900 million.
Also, beginning in the mid-19th century, chromic acid began to replace bark as a tanning agent. Chromium salts were first developed by a dye maker and later perfected by a skilled tanner. Other tanners began experimenting with chemical processes, and chromium, oils and aldehydes gradually replaced plant tannins. Not only was the tanning industry no long dependent on bark, but the chemicals reduced tanning time and tanners could produce more attractive and more flexible leathers in considerably less time.
Isadore Horween, an immigrant from Ukraine who had worked those 12-hour days then opened his own tannery, formulated the highly complex recipe for Chromexcel in 1919. The Horween Leather Co. continues to use it today to provide leather for superior leather products throughout the world.
In the 20th century, the number of tanneries decreased for various reasons:
- The Great Depression in the 1930s lessened the demand for leather.
- In the 1940s, synthetic leathers were produced in response to the rationing of tannins during World War II.
- In the 1950s, Italy had become the leader in fine leather and shoes.
- In the 1970s, more and more people refrained from eating meat for health or humane reasons, there were fewer hides available, and the cost of leather increased.
As the century came to an end, the tanning industry in developing countries grew. U. S. companies relocated to take advantage of the lower wages, longer hours, lack of unions and few if any environmental regulations.
Regardless, the U.S. tanning and finishing industry today is a multi-billion industry. There are the companies who remained here and pride themselves on their history and the traditions that continue to produce the finest leathers, such as the Horween Leather Co. And there are the fine master artisans who remain passionate about the leather-making process, such as OleksynPrannyk, and for whom their art is an expression of themselves.