Leather and Tanning Industry
LEATHER AND TANNING INDUSTRY
The leather and tanning industry began in the American colonies as a local industry for personal and local consumption. The tanners used local hides, local tanning bark, and hand techniques essentially the same as those used for centuries. Pioneer settlers tanned hides as just one of many tasks needed on the farms. As communities grew, a tanner who focused solely on tanning began to take farm goods in exchange for tanning or took half of the tanned leather from hides that a farmer brought to him.
Virtually every town in the colonies had a tannery. American settlements needed leather for shoes, boots, aprons, clothes, and more. Eventually, the demand for leather expanded beyond immediate local needs to include transportation (horse saddles and bridles, ships' rigging), communication (book bindings), and industry (cards for carding machines in the textile industry and belts for machinery). The leather and tanning industry developed rapidly in the middle and northern colonies, particularly Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
The colonial legislatures promoted the industry through legislation. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many colonies passed laws forbidding the export of hides to promote local tanning and the production of finished products. Some colonies followed these prohibitions with export duties on raw hides.
The development of the U.S. industry benefited from the availability of large quantities of tanning bark and cattle hides. However, the abundant use of cattle hides may have also impeded further development. Cattle hides could take over a year to properly tan (unlike sheepskins and goatskins). This long time hindered development toward larger tanning establishments and mechanization.
As the industrial revolution and mechanization came to the United States in the early nineteenth century, the leather and tanning industry did not experience much change. Tanners, it turned out, were slower to use power-driven machinery than other artisans. However, the machines used in those other industries often used leather as belting in the machines.
No radical change in tanning methods occurred in the early nineteenth century. Inventors patented machines and improvements in cleaning and treating hides, and a few large tanneries used machinery. However, the majority of tanners continued to use the age-old methods. Most of the proposed methods and machines were neither labor saving nor time saving for the average tanner. Part of the problem remained the lack of a scientific understanding of tanning on the part of local tanners.
In two areas, however, some of the industry adopted minimal mechanical improvements. Machines to "split" a hide divided a skin into two layers, grain and flesh. The grain is the outside skin with the hair follicles. The flesh is the inner layer with no grain marking. This process produced leather of a practically uniform thickness and of high quality. However, local tanneries could not afford these machines, and some began to sell their rough product to the few larger tanneries for finishing. Larger firms also began to use bark mills for grinding the tanning bark, although many of them remained horsepowered rather than steam-powered well into the nineteenth century. The number of small tanneries continued to grow and to far outnumber the large ones.
The few large tanneries appeared in the middle states, particularly New Jersey and New York, and this region became a center of the industry. New York City merchants devised new business strategies, such as contract tanning. The merchant provided financing to the tanner as well as negotiating services for the purchase of raw materials and the marketing of finished goods. The tanner paid fees, commissions, interest, and profits to the merchant. With this arrangement the merchants began to dominate the tanners, many of whom eventually became little more than skilled craftsmen or technicians in the employ of the merchants. The industry began a slow shift from sole proprietorships to partnerships and eventually corporations. The merchant provided financing to the tanner as well as negotiating services for the purchase of raw materials and the marketing of finished goods. The tanner paid fees, commissions, interest, and profits to the merchant. With this arrangement the merchants began to dominate the tanners, many of whom eventually became little more than skilled craftsmen or technicians in the employ of the merchants.
The involvement of the merchants also brought an international dimension to what had been a local and domestic industry. Around 1825 the larger tanneries shifted away from using domestic hides as the merchants contracted for shipments of hides from South America. The first half of the nineteenth century also brought efforts to improve the quality of U.S. leather, which became more competitive on international markets.
In 1830 the leather and tanning industry was one of the four leading industries in the United States. Cattle hides remained the major source of leather. Most towns continued to have a tannery, but larger establishments grew in number. Developments after the Civil War, including the discovery of ways to address the long time required for tanning, resulted in a permanent shift from many local tanneries to large centralized tanning companies by the 1890s. In 1860 the nation had about 7,500 leather and tanning firms. By 1914 the number had been reduced to 750.
See alsoIndustrial Revolution .
Ellsworth, Lucius F. "Craft to National Industry in the Nineteenth Century: A Case Study of the Transformation of the New York State Tanning Industry." Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 399–402.
Weiss, Harry B., and Grace M. Weiss. Early Tanning and Currying in New Jersey. Trenton: New Jersey Agricultural Society, 1959.
Welsh, Peter C. Tanning in the United States to 1850: A Brief History. Washington, D.C.: Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, 1964.
Linda Eikmeier Endersby