The Natural History Of Leather
Long before the digital age, leather helped to create the global village. This sturdy, versatile material from nature was essential to daily life around the world, in clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, commerce and weaponry. During prehistoric times, survival depended on leather’s diverse uses and applications. As early civilizations evolved, they discovered new ways of utilizing leather by manipulating it’s ability to change appearance and purpose. The development of shoes enabled people to travel greater distances. When different cultures migrated and mingled, leather was a common bond. But before human technology kicked in, nature was leather’s manufacturer.
Leather Puts Civilization’s Best Foot Forward
In a sense, leather was humanity’s first rapid transit system. Society, technology
and art evolved due to advancements in the manufacturing and manipulation of leather. The introduction of a sturdy leather sole many millennia ago enabled people to travel long distances. This increased the likelihood of different tribal groups being exposed to each other. Footwear today still utilizes the lion’s share of the world’s leather. Of course, shoe sole technology has advanced with science and Blackstock’s leather floor and wall tiles are an example of this process at it’s best. In ancient times, leather lead to social progress. Commerce was stimulated and an exchange of ideas and technology occurred. Oddly, up until the late eighteenth century shoe soles were cut symmetrically. Although some attempts were made to contour shoes properly, it wasn’t until early in the 1900s that shoemakers began to address orthopedic considerations and designed leather soles that conformed to the shape of the human foot. This was an early example of what is now commonly called ergonomics, the relationship of human anatomy to the tools we use. The harness followed.
By the Neolithic period of the later Stone Age, most farm animals, common today, had been domesticated. The earliest harnesses were most likely employed in agriculture, on oxen or donkeys. Archeological discoveries indicate that horse harnesses may have been in use in parts of Europe five thousand years ago, and in China three thousand years ago. About the fourth century B.C. the Chinese devised a harness with a breast strap known as the trace harness, later modified into the collar harness. This was a vast improvement on the throat-and-girth harness used in the West, which choked a horse and reduced its efficiency. The trace harness arrived in Europe in the sixth century A.D.. China is also credited with inventing the stirrup. The debate about when and where saddles first appeared continues, but there are Western biblical references that indicate saddles may have been in use as far back as 1,000 B.C. Horseback riding, and later horse drawn vehicles beginning with the chariot, enabled people to travel farther than ever, into strange new terrain and climates. Social change escalated with the momentous interaction of varied cultural values. Unfortunately, so did war. Early weapons, shields and armour included leather in their design. Chinese currency of the second century B.C. was made of leather.
The Romans also used leather coins. The English word “pecuniary”, meaning monetary rewards, comes from the Latin word “pecos” for hide. Even as late as WWI, leather coins were used in Germany. Leather played an important role in the development of arts and sports. One of the very earliest artistic techniques, developed by cave dwellers in the Stone Age, was pyrography, the craft of burning images onto stone or leather. Painting with leather brushes was an ancient art originating in China. The age-old Indonesian art of shadow puppet theatre employs carved leather figures manipulated between a lamp and a screen to bring the shadows to life. One of the earliest forms of soccer was played in China. Almost 1,500 years ago, they kicked around a leather ball. It is known for sure that a soccer game was played in 611 A.D. in the ancient Japanese capital Kyoto. Despite leather’s widespread use, its production changed little until the Industrial Revolution, when new machinery and chemical compounds radically altered and multiplied how leather was manufactured.
Leather and The Environment
Blackstock is committed to a cleaner, better and more environmentally responsible leather industry. During the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists attempted to copy naturally occurring vegetable tannins using mineral compounds. However, most leather manufactured this way did not have the wonderful feel and other qualities of vegetable tannage. Prior to environmental awareness and subsequent controls, some of these methods were ecologically unsound. Today, however, leading tanneries employ stringent environmental practices to ensure clean air, water and natural surroundings. Some of the best leathers are still created fully or partially with vegetable tanning.
Leather’s Life Cycle
Leather is perhaps civilization’s earliest example of successful environmental
responsibility, waste management and product recycling. It was – and is – a byproduct of the Agrifood industry. Our distant ancestors recognized the value of using every part of an animal, to eat, to make tools and to stay warm. The Inuit of northern North America, African societies, ancient Asian cultures, the Celts and other tribes of North America and Europe, all early societies revered the animals that provided them with the necessities of life, especially leather.