The use of animal hides to protect humans from the weather is believed to date back hundreds of thousands of years.
In ancient times, killed animals were probably skinned so that the raw hide could be used as a primitive rain cover or perhaps even as a blanket. The timing is not precise, but it was probably between 8,000 and 4,000 B.C. before people discovered (by chance or trial) a way to extend the life of raw hides through tanning, thus producing the first forms of leather.
The earliest forms of tanning probably involved the use of salts, smoke, urine and the application of animal fats to the raw hide, but history attributes the invention of the first vegetable tanning process to the Greeks, so that by 500 B.C., vegetable-tanned leather was a well-established trade in the region.
Where does the word TANNING come from?
The word 'tanning' comes from tannin: a polyphenol (micronutrient) naturally occurring in plants, seeds, bark, wood, leaves and fruit peel that prevents the disintegration of collagen fibres in the hide.
From Greece, the commerce and know-how spread to Egypt and then to the Romans, where leather was used for armour, harnesses and saddles, often with embellishments and decorations made by punching or stamping the leather.
While the use of leather continued to spread and vegetable tanning techniques were further improved and perfected, it was not until the 19th century that advances in chemistry led to the next major development in leather production: chrome tanning.
Between 1840 and 1850, the German technologist Friedrich Ludwig Knapp and the Swedish chemist Carl Erengisle Hyltén-Cavallius discovered the use of chromium salts to accelerate the tanning process, shortening the tanning process from months to days and allowing the production of softer leathers for which wider applications could be found in the furniture, automobile and clothing industries. This new process also reduced the cost of leather articles, making them more affordable. Today, around 90% of the leather produced in the world is chrome tanned.
Subsequently, more attention has been focused on improving the health, safety and environmental impact aspects of the tanning process, for example by replacing whale oils, eliminating carcinogenic products and treating waste water.
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