Humans have been making leather for nearly 7000 years now. The earliest reports of evidence of leather tanning and usage of leather comes from Mehrgarh (Indian subcontinent, current day Pakistan) between 7000 BC and 2000 BC and Sumer around 3000 BC.
One the earliest and most obvious examples of leather working was found in 2008 in an Armenian cave at an archeological dig. Diana Zardaryan, an undergraduate student, found a shoe made from a single piece of leather and dated it back to 3500 BC!! Otzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest mummy, was wearing leather shoes as well and dated back to 3200BC.
As our species evolved, from a nomadic lifestyle to a culture which practiced agriculture and animal husbandry, use of leather became much more prevalent. Leather was used to make everything from clothes, shoes and water flasks to saddles, sheaths and armor.
Historically leather was tanned with fats and oils, tree bark high in tannins (hence the term “tanning of leather”) and even alum. Tannage with fats and oils in combination with a smoke from a wood fire is likely to have been one of the earliest methods of tanning leather. In fact some Native Americans still practice this method of tanning. “Brain Tanning” deer hides produces a beautifully soft deer hide. Depending on which sources you believe, vegetable tanning was discovered somewhere between 3000 BC and 400 BC by either the Egyptians or the Greeks.
Today, nearly 85-90 % of all leather made is chrome tanned. Chrome tanning was invented in 1880 by Knapp (German) and Cavalin (Swede), however it was patented by an American by name Augustus Shultz. The biggest difference between the prevalent tannage of the past (vegetable tanning) vs the newly invented chrome tannage was the ENORMOUS reduction of the time to chrome tan hides over vegetable tanning. Over a short period of a time, chrome tanned leather accounted for a majority of leather produced worldwide owing to the cost savings.
If all this history got you wondering more about how leather is made today, read a more in-depth blog post on How Leather is Made.