Leather and Leather Products Industry

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LEATHER AND LEATHER PRODUCTS INDUSTRY. Leather industries in North America date from early European settlement. Tanneries were established in New England, Virginia, and the middle colonies before 1650. Shoemaking began as quickly.

Leather Crafts

Leather and leather products were important crafts through 1850, employing 15.7 percent of all workers in manufacturing, with shoemakers outnumbering workers in any other industry. European handicraft techniques adopted by colonists persisted with minor modifications throughout the mid-nineteenth century. In leather making, hides were soaked in lime and water, and loosened hair was scraped off. After this cleaning, hides were tanned in large vats by the chemical action of the tannin-bearing bark of hemlock, sumac, or oak trees. Finishing improved the suppleness of the leather, enabling the leather to be worked into a variety of products. The most important, boots and shoes, were made by cutting leather pieces with a knife, sewing upper-leather pieces, forming the upper around a foot-shaped device called a last, and stitching the soles to the upper with awls and waxed thread.

Initially, tanning was undertaken on a small scale and often on a part-time basis. Using local materials and targeting local markets, it was widely dispersed. Capital costs were modest, and skills were acquired experientially. Tanneries in the United States and the colonies that came to make it up grew with the population, passing 1,000 by 1750, 4,000 by 1810, and 8,000 by 1840. Early shoemakers were widespread; over 11,000 establishments operated in 1850. Saddlers and harness makers, numbering about 3,500 in 1850, were equally common. There was little guild activity in these trades. Although tanners secured legislation to control their trade, it had little effect.

The most important changes in the industry until 1850 were organizational. Emerging regional leather markets led to the growth of larger tanneries, the separation of merchants from tanners, and some concentration of tanning in cities, where hides were available, and in the Catskill Mountains in New York, where hemlock trees abounded. Nineteenth-century wholesale shoemakers sold ready-made shoes in regional and increasingly national markets. To supply shoes, they organized a "putting-out system" in which upper pieces were cut in central shops, put out to women who sewed them, and then put out again to men who bottomed the shoe. This system was concentrated in Massachusetts, which in 1850 employed almost half of shoemaking workers, in establishments averaging thirty-seven workers. New products originated, including morocco and patent leathers, leather belting used to transmit power in factories, and pegged shoes, made by using wooden pegs to attach soles to uppers. Except for shoemaking's central-shop system, these changes little affected the size of establishments, which in 1850 averaged 3.8 workers in leather making; 4.5 in saddlery, harnesses, and other products; and 5.4 in shoemaking outside Massachusetts.

Mechanization and the Factory System

By 1850, some mechanization had already occurred in auxiliary occupations that ground bark for tanning or turned shoe lasts. Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the mechanized factory eliminated most hand labor in leather industries. Tanners and leather-machinery firms developed machines to unhair, scrape, beat, split, tan, dry, and finish leather, including steam-driven mechanisms to feed tannin and stir hides. Chemical processes changed more slowly. Tannin extract substituted for bark after 1890. Building on German inventions, Augustus Schultz, a New York dye salesman, and Martin Dennis, a scientifically trained tanner, developed chrome tanning, which substituted chromic acid for tannin, reducing tanning time and overcoming the dependence on bark. Based on these successes, firms invested modestly in industrial research, leather chemists organized nationally, and universities formed industry-supported leather research centers.

Leatherworking was also mechanized, most importantly through the sewing machine, which had initially been used to make clothing. First used to stitch shoe uppers in 1852, the sewing machine increased productivity in factories and subcontractors' shops and was adopted widely by 1860. The most revolutionary machine, the McKay bottom-stitcher, attached uppers to soles. Patented by Lyman Blake, a shoe manufacturer, and developed by Gordon McKay, a machinery producer, it bottomed two-fifths of U.S. shoes in 1871, largely in factories employing machine operatives and some hand laborers. Machines to last, heel, and finish shoes followed, as did the Goodyear stitcher, which duplicated hand-sewn shoes. The sewing machine was also adapted to stitch saddles, harnesses, gloves, and books.

Leather mechanization succeeded around the Civil War (1861–1865) because it both supported the growth of mechanizing firms selling in wholesale markets and built on techniques of machine design and production that originated in other sectors. Tanners, shoemakers, and machinists were the principal inventors. Leather machinery firms diffused machines, spread knowledge of machine design, and thus fostered invention. Shoemaking patents quadrupled from 1860 to 1900, and seven-eighths were issued to machinists, professional inventors, and shoemakers.

As mechanization proceeded, firms grew in size. The average leather-making firm grew from five employees in 1860 to forty in 1900 and one hundred in 1925, led by firms in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. As large firms grew, many smaller firms closed; the 5,200 leather-making firms in 1860 had fallen to 530 in 1925. Shoemaking firms specialized in factory production or in custom-making shoes and repair; the average factory employed 57 workers in 1880, 89 in 1900, and 141 in 1925. Massachusetts remained the center of shoe firms, shoe machinery firms, and shoe invention.

Glove-making firms were somewhat smaller and even more localized; half of all leather gloves were made around Gloversville, New York, where localized knowledge provided a great advantage. Firms making leather and its products never attained the size or complexity of the managerial firms arising in more capital-intensive sectors. The large machinery firms did; Singer and United Shoe Machinery became diversified transnational corporations spreading American techniques to Europe and elsewhere since the late nineteenth century. The growth of factory

Table 1

Employment in U.S. Leather industries (in thousands)
Note: Data is for production workers, but changing census definitions make precise comparison impossible.
SOURCE: U.S. censuses of manufacturing.
LeatherBootsOtherShare of all
YearManufacturingand ShoesProductsTotalManufacturing

production was associated with the polarization of classes and efforts at unionization. These efforts had only localized success until the 1930s and World War II (1939–1945), when successful unions were organized in leather and shoe industries.


American leather industries experienced great changes in the twentieth century. The growth of demand decreased. Leather-shoe purchases per capita did not grow from 1900 to 1987. Though total employment in leather industries doubled from 1850 to 1954, the share of manufacturing workers decreased from 15.7 to 2.6 percent. Technical change undercut markets for harnesses, saddles, and industrial belting. Alternative materials cut into the use of leather to make products. Rubber and plastics came to be used in shoe soles and heels. Introduced by rubber companies around 1900, athletic shoes have grown rapidly in popularity since then. In 1963, DuPont introduced Corfam, a synthetic leather.

Changing techniques after World War II improved tanning machinery and methods; created leathers that were waterproof, washable, or scuff resistant; and introduced computer-aided design, injection molding, and laser cutting to shoemaking. However, these changes diffused erratically and did not alter the production process fundamentally. Automation was limited by the heterogeneity of leather and shoes.

Globalization after 1950 brought radical changes. While the United States was largely self-sufficient in both leather and shoe production in 1954, imports skyrocketed over the next several decades. Italy became the leader in fine leather and shoes and the machinery to make them. Italy's leather industries are decentralized, and networks of producers, contractors, suppliers, and skilled labor quickened turnover and improved product quality and responsiveness to style changes. The greatest growth occurred in developing countries, the source of four-fifths of U.S. leather and leather product imports by the early 2000s. This growth rested on the transfer of labor-intensive technology via subcontracting and joint ventures to economies with far lower wages, longer hours, antiunion practices, and little social and environmental regulation. As a result, U.S. imports of leather shoes rose from 30 percent of pairs purchased in 1975 to 82 percent in 1995. Domestic shoe manufacturing employment fell by 88 percent from 1954 through 1997. The decline in other leather industries was less severe; employment in tanning fell by 38 percent from 1954 through 1997, and in other leather industries by 54 percent. Once key crafts, then important centers of industrialization, the leather industries largely left the United States by the end of the twentieth century.


Dawley, Alan. Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Ellsworth, Lucius F. The American Leather Industry. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969.

Hazard, Blanche Evans. The Organization of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Massachusetts Before 1875. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1921.

Hoover, Edgar M. Location Theory and the Shoe and Leather Industries. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937.

Thomson, Ross. The Path to Mechanized Shoe Production in the United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Welsh, Peter C. Tanning in the United States to 1850: A Brief History. Washington, D.C.: Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, 1964.

Ross D.Thomson

See alsoBoot and Shoe Manufacturing ; Manufacturing .

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