Leather has one of the longest histories of all the materials we use, and has been produced for hundreds of thousands of years. After all, even the earliest humans had the basic needs of eating and staying warm. Hunters would eat the meet provided by an animal and then use the skins for a variety of purposes.
Today leather is most often used as a fashion accessory. Clothes, belts, bags, and wallets make up a large percentage of leather use. However, this has not always been the case. Throughout human history there have been various uses of leather and rawhide (which is a product similar to leather but not as soft). I wanted to take a moment to look at some of those uses with you.
In the Stone Ages
Although hides were certainly used for clothing during the stone ages, they were also used to make tents. Unfortunately no tanning process had been perfected at this stage, which meant that tents would not keep for very long: Eventually, they would either become brittle in the cold or rot in the heat. Rawhide was also used to make weapons. It would be placed over the end of something like a club when wet and would harden upon drying, making a much more formidable weapon.
Shoes were actually developed during this time as well--as far back as 40,000 years ago, though not popularized in most civilizations until about 30,000 years ago.
In Ancient Civilizations
Eventually, primitive forms of tanning were developed. These included using animal fat to soften the leather and ancient vegetable tanning. Civilizations also began to smoke their leather to keep it from rotting and to waterproof it.
In Ancient Mesopotamia, leather was used to make decorative headbands for women. Assyrians made flagons for drinking and even inflatable floatation devices!
Alligator drums became an important part of Chinese culture as far back as 5500 BCE. These drums would be used in rituals and ceremonies during ancient times.
In the Middle Ages
By medieval times people were beginning to combine leather with wood to make complicated furnishings. Picture some of the complex chests and chairs you might see on a set of Game of Thrones and you'll have the right idea.
Leather was also used when making tapestries, which were more than just decorative. Although many tapestries were used to tell stories of great battles or to depict scenes from the bible, their main purposes were more akin to our uses of insulation. They provided a barrier between the exterior of the home or castle and the interior, and also muffled sounds to provide some level of privacy, a hard-won commodity in those times. Using leather on castle walls could also prevent the castle going up in flames during a siege.
Ancient books may also be made with leather. At the time, books were more often informational than fictional, and many peasants may not see any books in their lifetime save for the Bible.
Armor was also made of interlaced leather. Japanese armor from this period of time would alternate leather and iron plates. From a distance it was impossible to tell which plates were made of which material. This had the benefit of hiding weak points in the armor while still allowing the increased movement of some leather in the armor versus all iron.
In the Renaissance
If you've ever been to a Renaissance Faire, you already know that leather was a big part of the culture. During the Renaissance leather was used for numerous items, from corsets to apothecary kits.
Raw hides were also used medicinally. Broken bones would be wrapped with wet raw hides. When they dried, they hardened and would keep the bones protected while they healed, much like casts today.
Falconers would use leather to protect themselves from their birds' sharp talons and beaks, and archers would keep leather cuffs around their arms to keep the bow strings from chafing as they loosed their arrows.
In the Wild, Wild West
Cowboy culture was big on leather. This was a time when you'd see leather chaps, leather vests, and leather boots. Guns would hang in leather holster from leather belts, and cowboys would dismount off leather saddles.
Although movies make the leather look particularly cool, the truth is that it was a practical material for the purposes it served. Animal hides--especially cow hides--were abundant, and the thick leather protected people from chafing on long horse rides.
In the Age of Rock and Roll
By the time rock and roll became the music of choice, leather had become less a fabric of utility and more a fabric of status. Famous rock musicians popularized leather jackets and leather pants, setting the ball in motion for many iconic styles we still emulate today. Youths of the 40s, 50s, and 60s were able to buy leather, which was being manufactured much more cheaply than it had been in the past, and leather went hand-in-hand with greaser culture.
In Modern Times
These days, leather is often used as a durable fabric for accessories. However, people are finding more and more uses of leather every day. This season leather is apparently quite stylish, and they're even making leather dresses for women that don't just look like items you'd find in an adult fantasy store.
Speaking of adult fantasies, it would be hard to have a history of leather use without acknowledging the use of leather within the BDSM industry. Items that were once solely utilitarian are now commonly being repurposed for pleasure.
Overall, though leather has been used for a vast array of purposes over the years, one thing holds true: It never goes out of style, and is one fabric that is truly here to stay.