Bourne Archive: Muspratt: Hides          Latest edit 27 Dec 2010


The Bourne Archive


Muspratt’s Chemistry, Theoretical, Practical & Analytical (ca. 1859)

Extracts Concerning Leather, 5: The Hides.

The web pages linked from this introduction are from an article on tanning, under the heading ‘Leather’. The original article is presented here in several web pages, respectively dealing: 1, with leather; 2, with tanning materials; 3, Sources of tannin; 4, crushing mills; 5, varieties of skin; 6, hide preparation; 7, the common tanning process; 8, finishing processes; 9, fancy and speciality leathers.

Vol. 2. pp. 509-516

The skins or Hides.—The next object of attention in the preparation of leather, is the hides or skins of the animals. Three classes are specified in commerce; the term hide is applied is applied to the skin of the larger and full-grown beasts; kips are the skins of the younger animals of the same class; and skin indicates the hides of the sheep, goat, kid, and the like. The term kip is qualified by the size of the skins. Generally speaking, the skins which are converted into leather, are those of oxen, cows, and calves, of the sheep, the goat and their young, of the horse, the pig, the dog, and a few others; but by far the most extensively worked, as well as the more important, are ox, cow, and horse hides, kips, calf, and seal skins. Considerable difference is observed in the thickness and quality of the skins of the various animals, even of those of the same class, owing to circumstances connected with the food, age, variety of breed, the state of health, and even the period of the year when they were slaughtered. Thus large oxen are well known to afford hides which are tanned into thicker and heavier leather than bulls or cows, especially if the latter be old, and have had several calves. Bull hides are coarser grained, and thinner in the back than those of oxen and heifers, or young cows, but much denser in the neck, and parts of the belly. It would also appear that when cows have repeatedly calved, the skin becomes distended and thinner, and does not, therefore, afford as heavy a sole leather 1 as that of younger beasts. Again, hides of animals dying in a state of disease, are found to be much inferior to those of healthy ones of the same class although the apparent difference is not very marked before tanning. No very definite criteria are known, to guide the purchaser in distinguishing the quality of hides and skins. If the hide be thin, flabby, soft, and will not bear handling, then such a one will not make good leather; but should it present the opposite qualities, it may be confidently expected to be a good article. It has been remarked of sheep, that the finer-wooled variety have inferior skins; also that the skin gains in thickness and quality, considerably, in the course of a few days after shearing.

Ox Hides.—Under this head may be enumerated the skins of oxen, cows, buffaloes, and calves. In Great Britain and Ireland, the market draws, in the first place, upon the home produce; these are usually vended in the green or fresh state. They are obtained from the extensive abattoirs generally found in large towns, and local butchers throughout the country 2. But besides these, considerable numbers are imported from other countries, especially from South America, and East and West Indies, and the Cape of Good Hope. The trade carried on between Great Britain and the South American ports in hides, though averaging a million annually, is only a fraction of what sprung up of late years between that country and other European nations, such as France, Belgium, Austria and Greece. The animals which roam along the Pampas and Llanos, or great plains, in herds of vast numbers, are, in addition to those owned by the extensive cattle owners or hateros, the stock whence this vast quantity is annually derived. They are imported in the dry state, and salted, and produce a very good sole leather. It should be remarked, however, that the hides from beasts inhabiting the extreme Southern latitudes, are not suited to tanning so well as those from temperate and Northern parts of the globe. The green or fresh hides of the home marked always rate higher than other sorts, owing, perhaps, to the fact that they do not require so much labor 3 as the imported dry kinds; still, in consequence of the amount of water they contain, they prove to be much dearer than the others; for allowing for the production of one hundred pounds of leather, seventy-five pounds of dry hide are requisite, the equivalent of this of salted hides, would average a hundred and fifty pounds, and a hundred and eighty-five of green or market hides. Heavy hides are converted into sole, belt, and harness leather, also for carriage coverings 4, and the smaller and lighter kinds are made into leather much used for skirtings 5, and for enamelling. That which is used for ladies’ shoes, and for bridle-leather, undergoes a bleaching process, termed fair finish. Hides from the West coast of Africa, make good upper leather 6, but are much employed in their raw state for trunk covering 7.

Calves’ skins and kips of home produce are of very superior quality, and produce a leather, when made with good oak bark, very extensively worked into the uppers of shoes and boot fronts. In France, where the calf-skin leather has been reputed for its excellence, they are taken off the animals when five or six months old. Kips are imported from the East Indies, Buenos Ayres, and Monte Video; those from the former place are dried and salted, or merely exsiccated 8, and from the latter places, the come simply salted. The countries adjoining the Baltic, more especially St. Petersburg, send here a good many; but owing to the animals being slaughtered when young, they are, properly speaking, skins. Many of them, however, as well as some imported from other countries, belonged to small, but full-grown animals, and are, properly speaking, hides. The lesser and inferior kinds of kips and calf-skins are tanned for bookbinders’ use, for gloves, and the manufacture of ladies’ boots and shoes. Buffalo hides imported from the East Indies, are tanned like ox hides, but they make an inferior quality of sole leather. The American Indians prepare these into robes, the hair being retained on them. When tanned in a particular way with oil, they constitute what is termed buff belt-leather, which is superior to the similar article made of cow hides.

Horse Hides.—The skins of these most useful animals are much inferior to those of oxen in thickness, texture, and strength, and, consequently, they are never prepared with the view of making sole leather, though the better quality is used when tanned for uppers. The chief consumption is, however, as cordovan, or enamelled leather, the hides being split by machinery to reduce them to the adapted thinness. Horse hides are likewise made into tawed, white, or alum leather, and are in this state used as aprons for certain classes of mechanics, and as thongs for the manufacture of the commoner kinds of whips, and for sewing common harness. A considerable number of horse hides is annually imported from South America, sometimes as many as one hundred and ninety or two hundred thousand. The imported hides are much superior to those which find their way to the home market, on account of the latter belonging to old and worn-out animals, while the former have been flayed from the captured wild horses of the pampas, lying between the chains of the Andes. Ass and mule hides, tanned and so prepared serve for the manufacture of scabbards; the leather is called shagreen or shagari.

Sheep Skins.—The home supply is very extensive; and although they are capable of making only spongy weak leather, the uses to which they are devoted are various, and their manufacture gives employment to numerous hands. Tanned with bark they constitute bazils, and are used for making slippers, and as bellows-leather; but when prepared with alum and salt, or with oil, white leather, much employed for aprons and by druggists, chamois leather result. A good many are split, and the upper or grain side tanned with sumac and dyed, then worked up as skiver, roan, and morocco, into pocket-books, hat-linings, and the under portion being made into white leather, and used very much by the chemist; but it is much the more general practice to reserve lamb skins for the latter purpose. Sheep skins are sometimes tanned with the wool adhering to them, and made into mats. The principal seats for the dressing and dyeing of sheep skins in England, are Bermondsey, Leeds, and Manchester; from these places they are exported to various parts of Germany, South America, and the United States; but the exports to the latter country are only partially prepared and salted. A large number of the skins of a particular breed of sheep is imported into Great Britain, and a similar variety is brought into this country, and likewise into France, from Asia Minor. In the latter country a considerable trade arises from the preparation of lamb sins for ladies’-glove leather, for linings for morning gowns, for slipper, and for winter gloves. In the hides from Asia Minor the wool is kept for the purpose of retaining the warmth. Considerable difference may be observed in the quality or lamb skins; those from the animals killed shortly after being born are possessed of a very fine grain, and take a very uniform dye; the same qualities are, in a great measure, retained by the skins till a month old, but from this period they begin to deteriorate. In the Southern parts of France and in Italy great numbers of lambs are killed, averaging four weeks old, and the leather prepared and employed as a substitute for kid leather. Not less than one million four hundred thousand of these skins are annually imported to Great Britain for the use of the glover.

Goat Skins.—A very large trade is carried on in Great Britain and Ireland in goat skins, and the tanned and prepared leather they yield. In the latter country a number of native skins is used, but the British market is supplied almost entirely by imported goods, more especially from Switzerland and the valley of the Rhine, from Magadore [sic], the Cape, and the East Indies. Those from Switzerland — Swiss skins — are more esteemed, because they possess a close, fine, and equal grain, which enables the dyer to give them a brilliant and permanent hue; the leather is also stronger, and wears better than any other manufactured from goat skins. On an average about one hundred thousand are imported annually, and fabricated into morocco for the demands of the various branches of the trade. Mogadore skins are made into a kind of black morocco leather, which still goes by the title of Spanish leather or cordovan, in consequence of the first supplies of this article being obtained from Spain and the Cordova, where the Moors originally brought the manufacture to great perfection. The sound skins which arrive from the Cape of Good Hope are much larger, and superior in strength and thickness, to any other variety. East India skins are small and light, and are generally converted into leather chiefly used for ladies’ shoes and upholstery. Those from Mexico, known in the American market as Tampico skins, bear a very high character. Compared with sheep skins, those of goats are much superior in texture, strength, and durability. Goat skins are occasionally prepared so as to imitate chamois leather, and applied to most purposes to which the latter is adapted, and likewise with the hair on, and used for matting. Kid skins manufactured into leather, are most extensively consumed by the glover, also for shoes, binding 9 leather, and the like. Great numbers are produced in Ireland, the south of France, Switzerland, Italy, and other European countries. Those of France have the greatest repute; the Irish skins are likewise highly esteemed. After the animal begins to feed upon herbage, the skin invariably loses in delicacy of texture, and, therefore, becomes unsuited for the finest gloves.

Deer Skins.—A considerable number of these skins is manufactured into chamois leather, particularly in the United States, and also into glove leather. The preparation of this kind of leather in Great Britain and Ireland is very limited.

Hog or Pig skins.—In Scotland, the swine are skinned; the skins are tanned, and constitute a very porous, light, but nevertheless very tough and durable leather. It is largely used by harness-makers and for saddle seats. The practice of skinning pigs is followed on the Continent, where the hide is dressed with the hair on, and used to cover portmanteaus, knapsacks, et cetera.

Seal skins.—Of these a great quantity is imported yearly into Great Britain, and manufactured into upper and varnished leather. They are obtained from the animals captured along the shores of North America, from Newfoundland to the Arctic ocean, for their oil. A large portion of the supply comes from the coast of Norway. The skin of the seal is light, but of a close texture, and, when properly tanned, yields a leather which has greater strength, in proportion to its weight, than any other variety. Seal skin is usually made into black enamelled leather for ladies’ shoes, the stronger sorts being employed for the upper part of hunting and riding boots, and knapsacks. Many skins are merely dressed and converted into materials for caps and clothing.

Porpoise skins.—The skins of the white porpoise have been tanned in Canada, and the leather is said to be soft, strong, and possessed of a beautiful finish.

Hippopotamus hides.—About one hundred of these skins are annually imported from the South of Africa, and tanned with oak. The hide, originally of great thickness, assumes the appearance of boards after being tanned. The only use which appears to be made of them, are implements used for beetling 10 in washing and bleaching cotton and linen goods.

Next Page: Hide Preparation.


1. ^    Sole leather is mentioned several times. It is simply a class of leather suited to use as the soles of boots and shoes.

2. ^   In the 1850s, butchers would do their own slaughtering.

3. ^   [sic] In many cases where modern British English uses a form of spelling influenced by French (in this instance, labour), Muspratt uses the Latin-influenced alternative (in this instance, labor).

4. ^   Perhaps hoods trimming and finishes of coachwork but probably more particularly, the outside sheathing given to carriages.

5. ^   This probably refers to use in making the skirts of saddles. That is the parts of the saddle which protect the horse’s flanks from the rider’s legs.

6. ^   Leather for the uppers of shoes.

7. ^   Providing a smart finish for travelling trunks.

8. ^   Dried.

9. ^   Bookbinding.

10. ^ Medieval fullers used hammers with large wooden heads to do this by hand. They appear in the arms of Bullecourt in Picardy and those of the Browne family of Stamford.

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