June 20, 2019 | Ryan |

The Rebel’s Guide to Leather | Part 1: The History of Leather

At Superior Glove, since the very beginning, we’ve prided ourselves on innovation.

After all, that’s where we started, building our first work gloves from the leather discarded by the local tannery, innovating, where no one else thought to look. Sure, we’ve come a long way since then, from just five styles in 1961 to over 3,500 gloves (and sleeves!) today, but we’re constantly striving to improve, working with industries and workers all over the world to develop the latest in protective technology.

Dedicated to the history of leather, this is the first part of our revamped Rebel’s Guide to Leather. In this installment, we’ll explore how our earliest ancestors utilized and innovated with leather and how it grew from a single protective layer to become the foundation of entire industries.

Prehistory: Our Humble Beginnings

The use of leather as a resource is forever connected to the development of the first stone tools, some two million years ago. Two million years! And you thought that old concert t-shirt that was hiding in the back of the closet had seen better days.

Our prehistoric ancestors, early hominoids, began developing tools made from stone close to 2.6 million years ago (the beginning of the Stone Age). Simple but incredibly effective, these basic tools would have enabled these people to pierce thicker hides and access meat; possibly using the skins and allowing for the crafting of the most primitive type of leather some one million years ago.

An illustrated example of Neolithic tools and weapons

By the time the Neanderthals had migrated into modern Europe thousands of years later, most evidence suggests that they had already begun experimenting with tanning methods such as salting and smoking.

While Homo sapiens (us, modern humans), are known to have appeared around 200,000 years ago and existed for a time alongside Neanderthals, we can’t be sure if this knowledge was shared or if we arrived at it independently. Soon, however, we began to develop our own advanced tools, which may have assisted us in better utilizing the entire animal and converting hides into leather.

Although there is evidence of other ancient human species existing around the same time, it is unknown if they interacted with modern humans or developed any tanning or leather crafting techniques of their own. Approximately 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals and these other early humans all but disappeared. Suddenly left with no legitimate competition for food or resources, our manufacturing and creative output exploded, with leather taking a front seat.

Leather in the Ancient World

Archaeological evidence points to the shape of human foot bones beginning to change 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, suggesting that, at some point, humans perfected the tanning process.

Physical evidence from the time is spotty but researchers have been able to piece together something of a complete picture. With a leather sole, we were able to craft footwear that allowed us to cover more ground, stay outside longer and ultimately, put less strain on our feet. Innovative, right?

And so, as we began to (literally) establish our footprint, our prowess with leather grew too. Tanneries began appearing in large numbers about 12,000 years ago and in Ancient Egypt, leather, most notably was an important part of chariot building, used in everything from harnesses to bow cases

An illustration of a possible scene in Ancient Egypt of a solider on a leather-based chariot.

As these early societies grew, however, it also drew them into conflict with others. From shields and basic armor, many of the first advanced weapons used leather. In China and Rome, leather currency was the norm (something that was still used in Germany centuries later) and in Indonesia, the ancient art of wayang, (shadow puppetry) was developed, in which the puppet figures were made of leather

Most notably, however, the earliest roots of association football (soccer) can be found in the age-old material. In China, some two thousand years ago, the military there is known to have a played game called Ts’u-chü which required a leather ball to be kicked into a small hole without using one’s hands.

This ancient game only slightly resembles the finer points of its modern equivalent, of course, but it helps to show the influence leather had quickly gained in the ancient world, used in culture, industry, warfare, and survival.

More and more, as humans migrated into urban centers, leather’s influence would only continue to grow..

A New Tool for a New Age

Around the time the First Crusade began near the close of the 11th century, with the advent of chainmail, leather armor was quickly phased out. Although it was no longer the main method of protection for most (at least for the better-funded soldiers or officers), it was still used in leg coverings or as the base in brigandine armor, in which leather is interwoven between steel plates, offering a great deal of protection without limiting dexterity.

In 2015, a leather operation was uncovered in England, estimated to be dated to the 13th century. Animals were found to be processed there that were used in the making of leather clothing and accessories, such as fur trims, gloves and hats. Additionally, evidence suggests that the site may have also worked closely with nearby monasteries, producing vellum, the parchment used for scrolls and books.

An engraving of London and the River Thames as they may have looked in the 16th Century.

By 1392, London butchers were required to leave any of their collected skins at an established leather market so that they could be handled for further development and sale, a practice that became commonplace in many of Europe’s cultural hubs.

An increasingly valuable cultural and social commodity, during an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, which hit London and her countryside during the summer of 1665, the wealthiest were said to hide amongst the product in local leather markets, believing that masking themselves in the distinguishing aroma would keep them safe

The Industrial Revolution and Beyond

Come the turn of the Industrial Revolution, near the back half of the 18th century, the advent of high-powered machines and mass-production not only radically transformed leather manufacturing, but the world that consumed it as well.

Industrialism was booming and leather was in such demand that when the Royal Society was founded in London in 1754, a portion of its doctrine was devoted to the expansion of chemical knowledge and how it could be used to better the tanning process.

In 1760, Sir William Johnson, 1st Baronet, an official in the British Empire, organized the transport of sixty tanners and glovemakers to the small village of Gloversville in New York State, for which he owned a portion of the land. Johnson noticed that the area was experiencing an uptick in productivity, specifically in the glove industry, and he wished to contribute. By the 20th century, Gloversville gloves and leather had become household names across the United States.

Downtown Gloversville’s The Glove Theater, as it stands today. Opened in 1914, during the town’s heyday in the mid 20th century, Hollywood studios would occasionally screen their films here first before they premiered in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: UN Dark, In Upstate New York, Leather’s Long Shadow)

This was true for many glove manufacturers and tanneries of the time, as a stronger shift towards globalization in the years following World War Two had caused demand to skyrocket. For nearly a century, Gloversville was a fixture of the glove manufacturing and tanning industries and although things have changed since then, with those industries no longer dominant forces in the city, if nothing else, leather has remained a constant, inspiring a spirit of innovation and growth that all us at Superior Glove have proudly championed for decades.

In 1991, a mummified man, preserved naturally in ice, was discovered on a mountain range bordering Austria and Italy. Named “Ötzi” by researchers, he was originally thought to be a recently lost mountaineer but forensic science soon discovered that he had died over 5,300 years ago. 

Although suffering from some environmental and excavation damage, many of his belongings were intact. Made mostly with leather, they provide a unique view into life and tanning processes during the Cooper Age. Today, Ötzi and his relics can be viewed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

A reconstruction of how Ötzi the Iceman may have looked during his lifetime, including his handmade clothing. (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter).

In 2008, during an expedition in Armenia, the world’s oldest shoe was found in the Areni-1 cave complex. Nearly 5,500 years old, the two-layered leather shoe, stuffed with grass as an insulator, was discovered in near perfect condition, predating Ötzi, Stonehenge, and even the pyramids in Egypt.

Like Ötzi and all those other discoveries once did, the shoe has provided researchers with new insight about the past and the opportunity to learn more about how humans may have lived and used leather centuries ago. The shoe has become a popular tourist attraction at the History Museum of Armenia.

For close to two million years, leather has played a crucial role in humanity’s development. From the simplest skins to the key piece in long-lost historical artifacts or even the foundation of modern industry, leather has grown just as we have: with innovation at the forefront.

This was Part One of our revamped Rebel’s Guide to Leather. In Parts Two and Three, we’ll take a closer look at the development of leather, the tanning process, and how different types of leather can impact your glove choices. Leather fans, stay tuned!

Ever wondered about the science behind the leather manufacturing process. We broke it down in Part 2! Take a look.

About Ryan Milford