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How did pre-industrial leather tanning work?
July 6, 2008 1:08 PM   Subscribe

AskMe Reference Desk: Pre-industrial production and trade of leather and leather goods - how did it work?

I'm trying to collect as much information as possible on the workings of tanneries, and the associated trade in leather goods, prior to the industrialization (i.e., dedicated machinery, easy access to bulk purified chemicals, etc.) of the process.

So far, I've tracked down one book that looks promising (English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products by John Blair & Nigel Ramsay) and that I'll be checking out tomorrow, but I'd appreciate any further recommendations. Online resources would be extra handy.

A couple of the specific points that I'm stuck on:

- How broadly applicable was the tanner's knowledge? Would someone who was 'specialized' in tanning, say, cow hide know how to tan deer skins? Boar? Reptiles? Fish? Emu? And so on...

- Pit-tanning apparently took upwards of a year. If there was a somewhat continuous supply of incoming raw hides, and a somewhat continuous demand for outgoing tanned hides, how would a pit tannery reconcile the two? Wouldn't today's (~1 year old) tanned hide be stuck at a the bottom of the pit, covered by the rest of the year's unfinished hides?
posted by CKmtl to Grab Bag (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
- How broadly applicable was the tanner's knowledge? Would someone who was 'specialized' in tanning, say, cow hide know how to tan deer skins? Boar? Reptiles? Fish? Emu? And so on...

There are various ways to tan things and they won't all work for all hides but in general yes. You just have to modify the various techniques and timing. I've seen tanned fish skin wallets for example. It took the guy a while to perfect the technique.

Pit-tanning apparently took upwards of a year. If there was a somewhat continuous supply of incoming raw hides, and a somewhat continuous demand for outgoing tanned hides, how would a pit tannery reconcile the two? Wouldn't today's (~1 year old) tanned hide be stuck at a the bottom of the pit, covered by the rest of the year's unfinished hides?

Every tannery operation I've ever seen has more than one tank or pit.

Tanning hasn't changed that much in a lot of places, look into modern guides designed for homesteaders and hunters for info on techniques.
posted by fshgrl at 2:53 PM on July 6, 2008


A search at British History Online for tanner and leather produced some results that look relevant:
'William III, 1696-7: An Act for laying a Duty upon Leather for the Terme of Three Yeares and making other Provision for answering the Deficiences as well of the late Duties upon Coals & Culme as for paying the Annuities upon the Lottery and for Lives charged on the Tunage of Ships and the Duties upon Salt. has quite a bit about the industry; not sure if this bit
a Duty or Imposition to be reckoned after the Rate of Fifteen Pounds for every One hundred Pounds of the true and real Value of all such Leather and so proportionably for a greater or lesser Quantity whether the said Leather be made of any Hides or Skins or Pieces of the Hides or Skins of Ox Steer Bull Cow Calfe Deer Red and Fallow Goats and Sheep being tanned tawed or Salt Hides or whether such Leather be made of the Hides or Skins or Pieces of the Hides or Skins of Kids Lambs Drumble Elke Buffello Otter Moose Loyshe Beaver Seals Horses Hogs Dogs or from the Hides or Skins of any other Beasts or Creatures whatsoever and whether the same be tanned tawed dressed or made by any Tanner Bazil Tanner Tawers of Leather Spanish Leather Dressers Curriers or by any other Makers or Dressers of Leather in Woose Mill Oyle Salt Allome or with any Materials whatsoever which said Rates or Duties upon Leather shall be answered and paid to His Majesty by the Tanners Makers or Dressers or by the Importer or Importers thereof respectively.
can be taken to imply tanners worked in all the types of hide listed.
This result notes that an 18th century tanner left both calfskins and horse hides in his will.
I only had a quick browse through the results; there might be more of relevance in there.
posted by Abiezer at 3:02 PM on July 6, 2008


Sorry, I should have written "can perhaps be taken to imply" - must not overwork the sources.
posted by Abiezer at 3:03 PM on July 6, 2008


fshgrl: So, perhaps a pit (or group of pits) for every month or something along those lines?

Abiezer: I'm not quite sure what to make of that part of the duties act either, because it mentions tawers. In the preview of the Blair & Ramsay book on Google Books, I saw something about an English law that made it such that tanners could only work cow hides, and everything else was handled by the tawer. If that was still in effect, all those other animals (wtf is a drumble and loyshe?!) could have been included to cover the tawer's output and not the tanner's.
posted by CKmtl at 7:25 PM on July 6, 2008


Every tannery operation I've ever seen has more than one tank or pit.

Some examples of the old ways of tanning can still be found in places like Fez, Morocco. As fshgrl says... they use multiple vats.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:50 PM on July 6, 2008


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