We think our industry had its biggest changes in the last fifty years with the big closures in Europe and in the USA and the opening of big modern plants in Asia and Latin America. Yet for anyone interested in why companies move, or the whole study of economic geography, a 1937 study by Edgar Hoover on Location Theory related to the Shoe and Leather industries in the United States is the seminal text.

Hoover highlights the fact that the 19th century introduction of tanning extracts allowed tanneries to be placed where convenient for the hides. Extracts shipped without danger of damage or deterioration and took up only a tenth of the space of bark. With advancing methods of refrigeration leading the meat industry to move to set up packing centres such as Chicago centuries of history related to where tanneries were built came to an end and famous tanning locations such as The Swamp in New York soon converted into highly valuable housing and offices.

Suddenly the regional specialisation of leather according to the nature of the local bark came to an end. In the U.S this meant that the regional separation between hemlock and oak regions ended and some tanners even started to blend the two, creating the famous “Union” tannage.

The 19th century also saw the introduction of machinery like the splitting machine, the tanning drum; it saw the invention of chrome tanning, non egg yoke based fatliquors and the replacement of dog dung by pancreatic enzymes. For millennia anyone looking at a tannery would have seen no difference from those to be found pictured on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, from those unearthed in Pompeii or in the pages of Diderot. Yet as the 20th century dawned one hundred years had seen a total transformation.

Today, we talk about chrome tanning having dominated for the last 100 years, for all of the 20th century, and possibly coming to an end – although that still appears to be a long way off – but in reality unlike the 19th century little changed fundamentally in leather manufacturing in the last 100 years. We saw incremental improvements such as replacing carcinogenic substances or those from threatened sources like whales, but nothing truly major.

Hoover says that the first patent for making extracts from bark was issued in 1791 but this was not actually applied until the 1880s as the “industry was scattered and technically backward”.

It might be a shock to read those words and reflect that they represent much of our industry today; but why are we still processing hides and skins in aqueous systems where most of the uptake is in the first hour and we hang around for ages trying, and failing, to get the last few percent in? Is this century not the moment to get serious about research in leather technology and look for long-term comprehensively different ways of making leather? Our raw material and history deserve better. 

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Mike Redwood


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