Hide Working and Tanning Leather (Level II)
by Christiane Cunnar, Human Relations Area Files
In the United States and in many other societies leather is an integral part of fashion and household living. So, for example, in North America, most people own shoes or belts made out of leather, and some may even have leather jackets, chairs, or sofas. For most parts, hide working now has become an industrialized process. However, in former times the hide-working process was extremely long and labor-intensive involving several stages such as the removal of hair, soaking, kneading and conditioning with substances. These processes are commonly referred to as hide working, tanning, or skin dressing. The ethnographic record shows that women and girls were often assigned to perform these hard and laborious tasks.
eHRAF User Guide
The eHRAF User Guides contain very helpful tips on how to search in eHRAF. Hint: In the eHRAF World Cultures database the term “hide*” or “work in skins” is represented by an OCM subject and may be used to enhance your search.
If you have questions about searching in the databases, don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-203-764-9401 or 1-800-520-HRAF.
1. Hide Working Processes
1.1 Hide working in North America
Assume that you are excavating a faunal assemblage in the Great Plains areas (e.g., Nebraska, Oklahoma, or Kansas) and you are finding evidence for hide working. You decide to consult the ethnographic literature to learn more about hide working processes. Use the literature in eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to compare and contrast the hide working methods employed by three or more Native North American groups. As you read the ethnographies, consider the following questions. Do you see any regional differences? If there is a division of labor for hide working, how is work allocated? How long and how many people does it take to process hides? What tools and materials are used? What are the hides used for? Based on the methods you review for hide working, what evidence would you expect in the archaeological record?
1.2 World-Wide Comparisons
Hide-working is a craft performed throughout the world. Use the literature in eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to compare and contrast the hide-working methods world-wide by selecting at least three culture groups from the different major regions. As you perform the searches and read the ethnographies, consider the following questions. In what parts of the world is hide-working predominant? What are the differences or similarities in hide working techniques between regions (e.g., Asia, Africa, or South America)? What animals are used?
2. Materials Used for Processing Leather
The materials used for softening and preserving hides reflect a culture’s access to different natural resources. Cultures located in coastal areas or in proximity to waterways, such as the Yakut of Siberia may use fish products such as fish oil or fish liver as softening agents to process hides. The Tarahumara of Mexico use tree products such as pulverized oak bark for tannins. The Pawnee of the northern Plains (now Nebraska) use elm bark. The brain, an animal by-product, is a common tanning agent as it is readily available and contains chemicals that facilitate the tanning process. The archaeological record can reveal the use of brains in hide working. For example, smashed bison skulls and skulls with holes, found in some Plains and High Plains sites of North America, support the idea that the brains may have been used for food or for tanning agents (Charles Reher, personal communication).
Exercise: In the list below select three (or more) words or terms. Use eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to compare and contrast the “hide working agents” for at least three culture groups from different major regions.
List of Hide Working Agents:
1. Brains (from animals)
3. Dyes Used for Hides
Dyeing agents transform leather into different colors. For example, Toivo Immanuel Itkonen (1984) reports that the Saami in Northern Europe made red leather by using alder bark, mixed with ashes and warm water. In an ethnohistorical account of 1882, A.E. Nordenskiold observed that Chuckchee women used pine to produce the red color in leather.
Using eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) compare and contrast the process of “dyeing hides” for three (or more) culture groups from different major regions. Hints: Please note that “work in skins” and “dyes” are represented by OCM subjects and codes and may used in a Boolean search. See the eHRAF User Guides for help.
4. Animals Used for Hide Working
Using eHRAF World Cultures compare and contrast the different (or similar) cultural uses of specific types of animals. For example, animals that are found in many parts of the world (e.g., cow, deer) are more widely used than regionally-specific animals such as caribou, moose or elk.
Exercise: In the list below select three (or more) words or terms. Use eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to compare and contrast the animals used in the hide working process for at least three culture groups from different major regions.
Hint: In Advanced Search use OCM 281 (work in skins) with words (e.g. buffalo* bison* deer* sheep* goat*) to find relevant paragraphs. See also the eHRAF Search Example and Methodology section for help.
List of Animal names:
5. Bison (buffalo)
14. Cougar (panther)
5. Products Made of Leather and Hides
Using eHRAF World Cultures compare and contrast the different (or similar) cultural uses of specific leather products.
Exercise: In the list below select three (or more) words or terms. Use eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to compare and contrast the items produced from for at least three culture groups from different major regions. Hint: In Advanced Search use OCM 282 (leather industry) and OCM 281 (work in skins) with words (e.g. shoe* boot* sandal* moccasin*) to find relevant paragraphs. See also the eHRAF Search Example and Methodology section for help.
List of Leather Products:
3. Pants, trousers
8. Shoes, boots, sandals, moccasins
10. Shelter (house, tent, dwelling)
Itkonen, Toivo Immanuel
1984 The Lapps in Finland up to 1945. Vol. 1. Helsinki: Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö.
Nordenskiold, A. E.
1882 The voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe, with a historical review of previous journeys along the north coast of the old world. New York: Macmillan.