In February 1838 he gave two lectures on Tanning to the Eclectic Fraternity in New York. Easily found online they offer a fascinating insight into tanning knowledge at the time. He indicates that it was only in the 1790s that we began to understand that there was more to vegetable tanning than physically “filling the open pores with tannin”, and that something chemical was involved. “It is the chymical union, or combination of this tannin, with the gelatine, or glue of the hide, that forms the insoluble substance which we call leather.”

He discusses the level of tannin to be found in different vegetable materials and argues at length about the benefits of hemlock over oak for sole leather, as long as it is processed correctly. He recognises that work has been done to extract the tannin from the bark to make its export economical but argues that “the transportation of the hides to the hemlock districts, will be found to cost much less than the process of extraction, and transportation of the tannin to the hides.” With river, rail and canal transportation improving fast he was leading the departure of tanning from downtown New York City into the forests of the East Coast. Lee considered, and largely rejected, the idea of non-vegetable-based tanning and it was to be over 50 years before we had commercially viable chrome tanning and nearer a hundred before syntans came in significantly. In fact, for the rest of the 19th century the most visible change was the rapid rise in mechanisation and moves into large factories driven by steam and eventually electricity. Well into the 20th century we still saw the long lines of machines driven by belt from a single motor.

Big beasts

Gideon Lee was one of those big beasts in the leather industry, a visionary who looked ahead and was willing to support his ideas with investment. He thought that hemlock was undervalued as a sole leather tannage only because those using it had generally been slow to adopt modern approaches. The tannery he built made hemlock tanned sole leather with the most up-to-date methods. He took the tannery to the forest as he calculated that to be the most economic way forward at the time, building a large warehouse nearby to store leather during the winter months when transportation into New York was difficult. This was the foundation of economic geography, written about by Edgar Hoover in his seminal 1937 book; ‘Location Theory and the Shoe and Leather Industries’.

Technology strategy and location decisions are both vital areas today.  Technology to find a new, better tanning method seems to have stalled but, given how long it took to commercialise chromium, perhaps that is not a surprise; while leather stays unchanged consumers are watching alternates get better very quickly. Advancement, with or without chromium, is needed urgently in order for leather to keep its place in the world. Classics will be with us forever, but they are not enough to keep the whole leather industry alive.

There was also a time that governments would act to protect supply networks, and aid efficiencies. Today it seems to be the reverse. Location is less about where production and distribution costs are lowest, or where raw material is available but overly concerned with finding safe havens from unexpected punitive tariffs. As a U.S. Congressman and a Presidential Elector, Gideon Lee would have something to say about that.

Dr Mike Redwood

June 19, 2019

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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