Last week a gentleman called ASR Rundle made the point for me, when I read through his college notes on Leather Manufacture. He wrote these in 1929 when he was studying at the Northampton College of Technology, a forerunner of the modern University. Lectures must have been more slowly paced than today, the writing is copperplate and corrections few. Fountain pens were in use then and I can imagine him being sent off to college with a prized new Parker Duofold.

I have no background on Rundle except journal papers with Woodroffe and Bailey in the SLTC journal in 1933 and in Cuir Tech in 1938 where he was the sole author. His notebooks give us an amazing snapshot of leather technology as it was understood in the 1920s. This was a period of incredible transition from traditional methods to more modern manufacture. Chromium tanning had gained momentum but was not yet dominant, bating along with puering and drenching were in transition, and finishes were also starting to evolve beyond protein into the area of nitrocellulose and solvents which caused fires in many elderly multi-floored tanneries with wooden flooring.

What has happened to our many leather reference libraries?

It is said that we can find everything on the Internet these days, and it is true that a good researcher can access some of the more descriptive textbooks of the period online; but in an industry like leather most of our technical and trade history remains trapped inside the covers of books. Sadly, access even to these is diminishing as the great tanning and chemical companies of the past having been absorbed or closed. I used to make a lot of use of the libraries of Hodgsons chemicals in Yorkshire, of Colomer in Vic and Friitala in Finland. I do not know the status of these fine libraries but they held the books and journals of our industry that tell the technical and industrial history of leather making over the past two hundred years.

Rundle’s notebooks evidence this as he is explaining times before the big leather chemical companies. Times when tanners made their own finishes largely using protein finishes. A time when natural materials such as milk, flower, egg white, blood, dog dung and the like were yet to be phased out and he explains in wonderful detail the use of shellac, isinglass, linseed, caragheen moss and gum tragacanth. There is a section on pigments with a list of 13 producers only one of which from Germany do I recognise as existing today and another on the basics of building a nitrocellulose topcoats which were in their infancy. It was this expertise that brought my own father into the industry around 1934 as surface coating chemistry started to advance but tanners still required inhouse knowledge to produce them on site.

In some quarters the past is rejected as being primitive, dirty and perhaps cruel, but at the same time we are driven by a nostalgic urge to return to a society “as it used to be”. Yet when was this perfect time? Rewilders struggle with those who consider they must recreate the formal parklands of huge western estates of the 18th and 19th century, others the gentle flower meadows of the early 20th century. It is not easy to decide.

Eliminate the greenwashing

Leather Naturally has shown us the need to eliminate greenwash and poor science from our industry promotions and dialogue. We need to be precise, honest and transparent.

Leather chemists must not worry about a dirty past of dog dung collected from city streets, blood from the abattoir, or the steamed swim bladders from Russian fish but we must be willing to preserve the information and learn from it. As we fight to move away from fossil fuel chemicals and energy intensive processing some of the innovations will certainly involve looking back at what we did in the past and combining ideas and techniques with contemporary science so that it fits the modern world. Modern bates are a typical example of how interrogating the science behind an unpleasant process to a modern enzymatic approach can be developed. We must embrace our past rather than hide it away.

Work harder to retain historical technical information

To understand how we thought about leather making in the past – the raw materials we used, the organisation of our tanneries, the utilisation of chemicals, the physical properties we worked to and the provision of water and energy – the notebooks of people such as ARS Rundle are a vital source of information that we should not lose. We need to work much harder to retain our technical and industrial historical information and make it more widely accessible. An area where the fountain pen and the digital world can usefully meet.

And if you have any knowledge of ARS Rundle who studied in Northampton in 1929 do please let me know.

Mike Redwood
June 8, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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