The Story of Leather (1915) by Sara Ware Bassett. Early 20th century American publisher's binding in green bookcloth with embossed black title and front board decoration. Photomechanical print illustration on front board.

Sometimes it’s fun to take a break from modern conservation scholarship and dip into an historical novel, like Sara Ware Bassett’s The Story of Leather (1915).  This novel was one in a series of “educational novels” by Ms. Bassett, including The Story of Cotton, The Story of Lumber, and The Story of Iron, to name a few.  This rather charming tale follows the adventures of Peter Coddington, whose father owns a leather tannery in which Peter learns the trade.  The plot lightly touches on labor relations, fair wages, and workman’s comp, all wrapped up in a mystery that dates back to the Civil War and carries the message of honoring one’s moral debts.  Woven throughout this sweeping storyline are many detailed passages about the process of preparing skins, the process of chrome and vegetable tanning, and the methods of finishing leather.

Nat Jackson teaches the young, incognito Peter Coddington the basics on the floor of the tannery.  He describes the process of washing and softening the dry skins after they come to the “beamhouse,” and then shows Peter the pit of lime where the skins are soaked until their fibers swell and the hair loosens from them.

“But I don’t see that the skins that are tossed into the lime pits come out with the hair off, ” objected Peter.

“Bless your heart — the lime does not take the hair off.  The men who unhair them have to do that.  They lay the wet skins out on boards and with sharp knives pull and scrape off all the white hair.”

“Why don’t they take off the brown or black hair as well?”

“Because only the white hair is removed by hand.  That is kept separate and after being dried is sold to dealers for a good price.  The colored hair is taken off by machinery and is sold too, but it is not so valuable.”

“I suppose plasterers can use hair like that, ” speculated Peter.

“Yes, and upholsterers, ” added Jackson.

This 240-page novel is a quick, pleasant, old-fashioned read, with clear descriptions of the leather-making process near the turn of the 20thcentury.

Dyed goatskin leathers from Pergamena (Montgomery, NY).

To bring you back to the 21st century, here are some photographs of goatskin and calfskin leather taken with the ProScope 200x digital microscope.  As you can see, the goatskin pores are much larger and more unevenly distributed than the tighter, more evenly spaced pores of the calfskin.  This difference is noticeable even on the macroscopic level, and can be used to distinguish types of leather by sight and touch.

Un-dyed goatskin leather at 200x magnification (left); un-dyed calfskin leather at 200x magnification (right).