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New York began as a trading post to send hides and skins back to Europe. Soon leather was needed to supply the needs of arriving settlers, so the direction of the leather trade started to reverse and leather production became a major US industry.
Leather helped American society grow and develop and became intertwined with society in complex ways, providing employment, creating wealth and being declared of national strategic importance. Many members of George Washington’s government came from the leather industry in New York.
As you walk under Manhattan Bridge and leave Chinatown to head on to Pearl Street, under Brooklyn Bridge towards Wall Street and the Battery, you pass a tiny, hole in the wall, shoe repair workshop. It is a reminder that the area between Wall Street and Frankfort Street (the latter only half surviving the building of Brooklyn Bridge) was designated for tanning back in 1650, and although most of the tanneries started moving out to the forest lands where bark was available in the early 1800s, it remained an industry trading and warehousing centre until around 1920.
Leather was important from the earliest times. With few other material resources, hides and skins were unique in offering a decent area of material for sheltering, covering and carrying. It would not have taken long to work out how to preserve them and keep them soft, not least since the smoke from a fire in a hide or skin tent has a mild aldehyde tanning effect. But rotting hides smell, so the Romans politely asked the tanners to move down the river to the sea, while the Venetians suggested a distant island might be a good location and in London they were moved downwind and across the river to Bermondsey with force after the Fire of London in 1666. Still today, many signs of the industry remain in Bermondsey.
Lunch at Racky’s transformed the leather industry
In New York it was “outside the Wall” and into The Swamp, which was to become a major global leather and tanning centre for nearly 300 years. Apart from the cobbler’s shop a few streets away, there are no obvious signs remaining to identify the leather history of the zone. Unlike in Bermondsey, nothing exists. Yet, it held at least a similar significance, and in terms of technological history for the leather industry, a far more important role.
For here in 1880s New York, in Racky’s restaurant in Frankfort Street, tanners and traders routinely met for lunch, as they had for some twenty-five years. Julius Kuttner, who managed the Booth & Co business in the US, including a tannery in remote upstate New York, found himself talking to the dyestuff chemist Augustus Schultz to scheme about creating a new commercial tonnage that would be faster, better and more water resistant: chrome tanning. This was to transform the leather industry everywhere in the world with processing changes that are still impacting leather manufacturing today. Whatever you know about leather technology, chrome tanning allowed us to move an ancient craft into an engineered product, kick starting our leather schools and research institutes into existing.
Equally, at that time leather and the leather using industries were the number three industry in terms of employment and sales. Looking up to the west side where newly constructed tenements offered a minimal but acceptable accommodation for immigrants from all round the world, many of them came with skills in leatherwork, shoemaking and repair. They would have been able to quickly find some form of employment to get started and pull themselves and their family towards the American dream. Leather was a vital necessity in many sectors, from footwear through industrial belting to saddlery and even gas meter leathers. As the Brooklyn Bridge was finished and the first chrome tanned leather came into mass production for women’s city shoes, the needs, uses and attitudes to leather began to change, and they have continued to evolve ever since.
Increasingly, leather goes into articles that consumers buy because they think they say something about who they are. And since leather ages and develops character over time, it fits this role well. It not only helps its owner express their personality, if the right leather is in the right article, the messages get stronger as it is used. Two identical leather bags owned by different people are totally distinct within four weeks of regular use; each with a different way of life stamped upon them, depending upon how they use their bags, load them with items and handle them.
For the craftsman, too, handling a well-made piece of leather is a joy. For those 19th century immigrants to the USA as well as income, leatherwork would have brought contentment and peace of mind in a life that otherwise was likely to be a struggle in many ways. Leather today is no ordinary disposable material, but a durable presence in our life, representing all that is best about Brundtland’s initial definition of sustainability. It was ever thus. Nothing can replace leather.
Dr Mike Redwood
July 17, 2019
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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