Station: [9] The History of the Tannery

Like any ancient craft, tanning has a long history. Even the famous Ice Man "Ötzi", found mummified on a glacier in South Tyrol, was wearing furs and leather and carrying a deerskin quiver. So we know the skills involved in processing, preserving and using animal skins go back thousands of years.

The first priority has always been to stop the raw animal hides rotting and preserve them. To that end, the first priority was to remove any remaining flesh. Depending on how the leather would later be used, it had to be either hard and sturdy, or soft and supple. It must not decompose, had to be water-repellent and needed to retain those qualities for as long as possible.

There’s evidence of leather production in images that have come down to us from ancient Egypt. The hides and skins of wild animals that had been hunted, and later also of domestic animals, were processed for a wide range of purposes: for sandals, straps, or fur clothing... Furniture was upholstered with leather, and even now, it’s hard to imagine the bridles and saddles of riding animals made of anything but leather.

Over thousands of years, tanning methods that use plants have remained essentially the same – they’ve only been refined.

In the mid-19th century, when industrialisation was well under way, tanners began to use chromium salt. The process of turning animal hide into leather, which had previously taken months, was considerably shortened. Then came the chemical dyes that contribute to the great variety of modern types of leather.

In the 1920s, Germany had 2,700 tanneries employing 61,000 people in total. Today, only a small number of companies still work with the traditional tanning methods. Their products are especially highly valued and priced accordingly.

All depictions: © Gemeinde Fricklingen