Leather is one of man’s first and most useful discoveries thanks to its durability and quality, and the ancient art of making leather has been practised for thousands of years. The use of leather was largely functional to start with and our ancestors made tools, shoes, clothing and shade out of hides. As they evolved, so did their uses for leather. Some cultures viewed leather as a status symbol, and so the craft became not just about function, but also about visual appeal. It continues to be the material of choice for commercial and residential furniture, for the fashion industry, and for automotive, aviation and marine applications. Few materials have been around as long, and used as widely, as genuine leather, which lasts a lifetime and can be passed down through the generations.
The leather industry played a vital role during the First World War in providing shoes for the soldiers. In the UK, shoe factories made boots for the allies and produced most of the 70 million boots produced for the British troops. Business boomed, with women being employed in the factories while the men were away at war. Bootmakers were essential at the front line to mend soles and keep the men marching.
Leather industries in the US underwent great changes in the twentieth century as there was a decrease in demand. Alternative materials began being used, with rubber and plastics being seen in shoe soles and heels. Athletic shoes, which were introduced by rubber companies in about 1900, have grown massively in popularity since then. In 1963, chemical giant DuPont introduced Corfam, a synthetic leather.
Techniques changed after World War II, which improved the machinery and tanning methods. These developments, however, did not fundamentally alter the production process. Automation was limited by the diversity of leather and shoes available.
The globalisation of the industry after 1950 brought about sweeping changes. The US was largely self-sufficient in terms of leather production in 1954, but there was a boom in imports over the next several decades. Italy became the leader in fine leather and shoes and the machinery to make them.
The progressive city-state period in Medieval Italy, when commerce was really flourishing, was the perfect environment for the leather tanning industry to take off. Societies were formed to protect the closely-guarded techniques used to produce the leather, the quality of which was unrivalled. These remain family secrets to this day, handed down through the generations in the areas that have been producing the world’s best leather for over 500 years.
Since the decentralization of Italy’s leather industries, networks of suppliers and skilled workers quickened turnover and improved product quality. The greatest growth occurred in developing countries, the source of most US leather imports by the 21st century. US imports of leather shoes rose and domestic shoe manufacturing employment fell. Employment in other leather industries also declined, though it was less severe. Leather industries in the US, once centres of industrialisation, had largely left the country by the end of the twentieth century.