A History of Leather Use in the United States

by Ryan Popoff November 13, 2017

When you picture leather, something specific comes to mind. For me, it's the supple feel and musky scent of it that I remember from when I first started crafting with leather on my kitchen table. For you it might be the motorcycle jacket you were wearing when you had your first kiss or the engraved wallet you received as a thank you present on your daughter's wedding day. There's a reason leather is so evocative. It has a rich history and has been a big part of our culture here in the United States as far back as the Native Americans. Though the look, style, and feel of leather may have changed some over the years, many of our uses for leather have remained the same.

Before settlers came to America from Europe, Native Americans were making leather and using it on a daily basis. Much of the leather they made came from deer hides and was used to make jackets and moccasins. The moccasins weren't necessarily like the ones you picture in your mind. Often they rose up to the ankles and could be used, like boots, to keep feet warm in the snow. In colder parts of America, whole outfits would be made from deerskin, from dresses to leggings and breechclouts. To make their leather water-proof, tribes might smoke it before working with it. Rawhide, a material related to leather, could also be used to make saddles and bags. In Native American culture, wearing leather was as much about spirituality as functionality. They believed that wearing the hide of an animal would imbue them with that animal's strengths and traits.

When pilgrims came to America, leather became a staple material for them as well. Almost all shoes were made of leather at the time, though they came in both low-cut and high-cut varieties. To gain traction on their shoes in winter they would stick nails through the soles of the shoes to cut into the ice. Leather was also used to sheath knives, and lucky children might own a ball made out of leather.

In the 1600s European fashion caused beaver pelts to become a highly prized commodity. At the time North America had a lot of beavers, and many beavers were hunted and skinned during this time to make hats out of their pelts. Beaver pelts were also sewn together and used to make coats.

The Industrial Revolution saw an increase in leather production worldwide, including in America. Before the Industrial Revolution, making leather was a long, arduous process. In some areas, tanners had to soak hides in vats of urine to soften them, and then they would have to beat them, knead them, and stretch them out for a long period of time. During the Industrial Revolution, improvements were made to the process and new chemicals created to simplify the process, making leather a more economical fabric. Patent leather, which is still used today, was invented in 1819. This is the leather that's often used on leather jackets with the glossy, varnished-looking surface.

If you picture cowboys on the wild west, you're likely to envision leather chaps and saddles. Cowboy culture developed alongside development of the western half of the United States. Cowhide leather became prominent around the same period of time.

After World War II synthetic leather was developed. Although not as durable as genuine leather, it was cheap to mass-produce. The development of synthetic leather may even have led to the increased popularity of leather goods: As people could afford to wear more leather-like products, they were able to develop new styles and looks which would then be reproduced using genuine leather.

Rock-and-roll and greaser culture of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s really made leather cool. Inspired by rock stars like Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, working-class teenagers and young adults often wore leather jackets, which became a status symbol in many high schools and small towns. Males might also wear steel-toed leather boots, while females might wear tight-fitting leather pants. Movies like the Outsidersand Greasecelebrate this period in US History, and often portray people wearing leather.

Recently the leather industry has changed again. The popularity of 50 Shades of Graycame with a rise in the use of leather for sensual purposes. Although not a traditional use of leather, it has come with the benefit of people beginning to re-notice the quality differences between real leather and synthetic leather. This has allowed them to regain their respect for the leather industry. Although leather has never really gone out of style, it's particularly popular right now.  These days its used for all sorts of clothes, including leggings, dresses, chaps, and jackets. It's also used for countless other purposes. Leather bags are particularly popular for their durability and class.

Ryan Popoff
Ryan Popoff


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