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16 September, 2019 -
For tanners of a certain age the mention of fire means multi-story tanneries with wooden floors built generally between 1870 and 1950 burning down as cellulosic finishes, solvents and buffing dust lying around and impregnated into and between every plank of wood made these old plants totally flammable. I well remember the days when the sales director was the last one out as he ensured that every hard to sell pack of leather was under a sprinkler to get "water damaged" should it survive the inevitable conflagration.
Yet there is another, older side, to leather and fire which I learned today in England's smallest city: Wells. The Museum of Wells has just opened a temporary exhibition on the history of firefighting in this beautiful city. The relevant history starts on September the 14th 1613 when a civic meeting voted that each corporation member should supply at least one fire fighting bucket before the year end, and the most senior members should supply two. Those buckets were made of leather and leather continued to be used until well into the 19th century. We also know that the first hosepipes used by the fire fighters were crafted from leather as well.
A modern replica of a leather fire bucket
In the Museum a fire bucket from 1779 is on show and a leather fire fighters helmet thought to be from the same date stands beside it. The Museum Curator indicated he was very surprised at how heavy it was, but it clearly offered excellent protection.
The point here is that leather, as the first sheet material available to Lucy when she stood up and walked in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago, has been vital in allowing our society to progress: and for at least the last 1000 years leather has been conceding end uses as more appropriate materials were invented. This includes paper, pottery, glass, metals and textiles. Nowadays wherever leather is used it has to fight to prove itself. Sometimes it is its beauty which is required, sometimes its performance; preferably both. But the days when a good piece of leather sold itself are long gone, and by the looks of it when a cheap price is all that is needed is long gone too.
Leather today is battling in a very competitive environment. The tanner must be ready to develop outstanding products, tailored to fit the target market and offering better value than alternate materials. Sounds simple, but for many it is a very big change. It is called marketing.
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