The Tanner

   One of the rarest things to find, during our region's early years, would have been a village which did not have a tanyard located near it. That might seem to be difficult to understand, in our present day and age in which we drive automobiles and live in houses furnished with all sorts of things made of rubber, plastic and vinyl. But in the days before the invention and widespread use of our modern "synthetic" materials, people had to rely on other "natural" materials. Leather was one of those materials. The tanner was the craftsman who prepared and converted raw animal hides into leather.

   Leather was used for a multitude of everyday items. Saddles and harnesses were fabricated of leather. The tops of carriages were made of leather and the springs on which the carriage rode were, at first, constructed of straps of leather. Men tended to wear more articles of clothing made of leather than of other materials. Although they were not as comfortable as cloth ones, trousers made of leather (i.e. the fabled "buckskin britches") were worn by most men who had to work outside. Even craftsmen who worked inside, such as shoemakers and hornsmiths, wore aprons made of leather because they afforded good protection and lasted a long time. Shoes and boots were all made of leather before the discovery of rubber and its use in footwear. In the house certain items, such as buckets, were made of wood covered with leather, or leather by itself.

   The tanner's craft was not a nice one; it was one of the smelliest and physically hazardous occupations of our forefathers. The vats in which hides were soaked to loosen the hair could become quite odorous and the lime used to speed up the process of softening the animal hides could just as easily soften and loosen the hide of the tanner himself.

   The job of tanning animal skins started out with cutting off any worthless ends and then splitting the hide in half (to make it easier to handle). The hide would be soaked in water with some lime added to it to "burn" the top hair-bearing layers of skin off. The hide was then removed from the soaking vat and spread across a "beam", which was usually just a section of log. The curved surface of the beam would ensure that the knives (used to scrape away any remaining hair) would not encounter a sharp edge underneath the hide and accidently rip into it. The fleshy side of the hide would also be scraped in order to remove any fat and tissue. The thoroughly scraped hide would be returned to a vat for more soaking and washing to get rid of the last of the "underskin" which is a layer that is fibrous and permeated with a gelatin substance. The tanner carefully added tannin madefrom tree bark to this final soaking vat. The tannin would slowly combine with any trace of the gelatinous underskirt and the chemical process that followed resulted in the leather becoming tough and hardened. The tanner's job required an experienced knowledge of how much tannin to add and the speed at which it should be added so that the chemical process did not get out of hand. If too much tannin was added, the leather might harden too much and be worthless; if too little was added, the leather might disintegrate because of any lime that had not washed out in a previous step. The hide, when the tanner felt it was ready, would be hung over drying lines, usually wooden poles whose widths helped to keep the one side of the tanned hide from touching the other.

   After the tanned hide had thoroughly dried it would be rather stiff and unwieldy for use and had to be softened without damaging it. The tanned hide would be spread flat across a stone slab. The surface would be covered with a mixture of tallow and neat's-foot oil. This would be beaten into the surface with a mallet and then the hide was hung up to dry a bit. The tallow and neat's-foot oil would penetrate the surface just enough to make it pliable without reversing the tanning process. The piece of leather could then be rubbed and worked by hand.

   The Currier was the individual who worked in conjunction with the tanner to bring the piece of leather to its final state. The Currier would stretch and burnish the piece of leather until it was a uniform thickness and suppleness. The more the currier burnished the surface with his iron "slicker" or scouring stone, the thinner he stretched it and the softer it became. Any piece of animal skin could eventually be made into shoe or harness leather or bookbinding leather or glove leather according to the care and patience the currier took in his job. It would be safe to say that in our forefather's times, there was not a single individual who did not wear or use leather in some way. From the newborn baby who was rocked quietly in a cradle suspended on leather straps, to the young child who wore leather shoes and boots, to the young adult who attended to the harnesses and trappings of the family's horses, to the mother who sharpened her knives on a well-worn strip of leather nailed to the kitchen cupboard, to the father of the family who wore buckskin breeches to tend to the livestock, the tanned hides of animals provided a great wealth of household items and clothing. Anyone who finds the notation of either "tanner" or "tanyard" beside the name of an ancestor on a tax assessment return should feel pride in the fortitude that ancestor would have had to possess to undertake the craft.