Tanning in the Seventeenth Century

Although an archeologist would be fortunate indeed to unearth a piece of 17th Century leather, this product was an important one for both daily life and special purposes in the Virginia colony. Whether a pouch, a horse bridle, a sword scabbard or a book cover, a leather article was created from the skin of a slaughtered beast in a laborious and often unpleasant process.

Before the development of feed crops which would allow the majority of a herd to be keep over the winter, most livestock was slaughtered in the fall, when grazing and foraging materials were becoming scarce. In a community of any size, a complex involving slaughtering pens, tanneries, horn works and finally soap and glue making facilities would arise, always placed near a source of running water and invariably downstream of the village or town proper. At such sites were usually located pits where waste products (useful as compost in the spring) could be collected.

After slaughtering, the hides were washed in the river or stream to remove blood, loose flesh and other soiling, then kept soaking in water until ready to process further. Cattle, swine, sheep and goats provided most of the hide commonly worked.

The most important part of the tanning process involved vats containing a variety of equally noxious solutions. These large containers (on the average about 12 feet square) were sunk slightly, with an earthen wall to help retain the water supplied by diverting part of a stream or river.

The first vat contained a lime solution (obtained from limestone or shells), into which the hides were placed and left to soak, hair side down. Chemical action caused some of the hair to fall off. The skins were then removed and the bleached fat and hair-lime residue was scraped off, the latter later sold for plastering. The hides, scraped free of the bulk of the hair, were returned to the liming vats, which by now contained large quantities of decaying organic matter full of bacteria which aided the process of hair and connective tissue removal. In a procedure which took about two months, the skins were alternately soaked for a few days and removed from the vats, folded and left out for a few days more. By the end of this process, the remaining hair could be easily removed without harming the hide.

The skins then entered a similar soaking and resting period, involving vats of lime in weak solution. This process took over six months.

In the next phase of leather production, the hides were combined with oak, beech or willow bark, which would provide the tannic acid necessary in preserving and coloring the hide. Other acidic additives to this dressing included sour milk, cider pressings and ferment of rye, recipes varying according to the materials at hand, the weather and the ultimate finish desired. Bark was spread in the bottom of the tanning pit, then hides and bark alternately stacked until the pit is full. A foot of tanbark covered the pit, and the whole well trampled down and kept moistened for three months.

Unpacking the pit was a risky business, because the hides were very soft and vulnerable to tearing.

To stop the action of the acetic solution, alkaline dressings were then applied. Ingredients included soft soap, boiled meal and dog, pig or fowl dung.

The final step in leather preparation was performed by the currier, a specialist who worked the leather with oils and greases, using a variety of tools to prepare the leather for its intended use.

Diderot, Denis. A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry.

Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life.

Lee Pelham Cotton
Park Ranger, Colonial NHP
Spring 1996

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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