Today we consider leather to be a luxury item. A leather coat can be very costly. In Colonial times, leather was a necessity. People did not have synthetic materials and used leather for clothing, shoes, saddles and other items.
Leather, in one form or another, has been used since the caveman days, but it became refined in the Middle Ages, which lasted from the fifth to the sixteenth centuries. The process used to make leather remained pretty much unchanged during that time. The colonists first came to the New World at the end of the Middle Ages and brought their knowledge about how to make leather with them. A good tanner was worth his weight in gold and an important member of the community. Leather processing methods did not change until the nineteenth century, when the discovery of chemicals made the process much easier. A tanner in Colonial times earned every penny he made the hard way.
When studying about Colonial times, it is important to touch on every phase of life. Think of the uses of leather in the army, for instance--saddles for horses, sheaths for swords, boots for soldiers. A good example of the significance of leather in Colonial times is the plight of the soldiers at Valley Forge. They had no leather to make their boots with. In the cold of winter, many suffered frostbite, and it almost cost them the war.
Leather was used for much more than the military. It was the only thing shoes could be made of. The men wore leather vests, chairs were made of wood with leather seats, storage chests were made of leather and some were works of art. Books were bound in leather, mostly cowhide for its durability. The aristocracy demanded the finest leather for the seats in their coaches. The pouches that the mail was carried in were made of leather. Even door hinges were made of leather.
Leather was made from the skins of many different kinds of animal. The type of skin used depended on how the item was to be used. For instance, deerskin was used to make clothing that was very soft, called buckskin. Shoes were made from either cowhide or deerskin. Drinking tankards were made from cowhide, as were riding saddles. Cowhide was not as soft as deerskin, so it was used for household items like chairs. Calfskin was also soft and used for items like shoes for children.
It was not easy to make leather in Colonial times. There were no factories, and if you did not live in town, or did not have enough money to buy ready-made items, you had to make your own. To do that, you first had to take the hair or fur off the skin. It had to be soaked, then pounded and then stretched over a frame and scraped. Next it had to be soaked in a solution like quicklime. Then it needed to be washed to stop the chemical reaction--all this just to get rid of the hair and fat. If they wanted to soften up the hide, they then put it into a mixture of, believe it or not, dog dung, chicken and dove droppings. After that, the leather soaked in ammonia. Then it was hung out to dry. It could take months to get a good hide. This is just the basics of tanning a hide, but it does give a good idea of how hard it was.