Confederate Leather: Black or Brown? How and Where?

Oct 27th, 2008 | By Ken R. Knopp | Category: Articles

By David Jarnagin and Ken R Knopp (originally published in NORTH SOUTH TRADER’S CIVIL WAR Aug. 2007 and Camp Chase Gazette 2009)

As any artifact collector or reenactor knows there are two primary colors when it comes to Civil War era leather- black and brown (”russet”). It was thought for many years that Confederate leather equipment was russet and all black leather was Federal. However, since Paul D. Johnson’s book on cartridge boxes shed light on the Federal government’s inherent problems with hemlock bark tanning we now know that some of the surviving dark browns are just faded hemlock that were originally dyed black. But what about the different shades of russet that are found from chocolate to light brown to yellow? Can we tell what is more likely to be Confederate? In the following paragraphs we will explore the several types of russet to better understand their origins and examine how the Confederacy supplied its leather for equipment production.
Defining what is 19th century russet leather is a difficult and confusing undertaking. So a basic understanding of the vegetable tanning operation is needed. Tanning is a name used to describe the entire process of converting raw animal hides to finished leather. Nineteenth century tan yards had three distinct departments, each designed to transform the raw hide as it passes on its way to becoming useable leather.

Upon arrival at the tan yard, the raw hides were first taken to the Beam house to be prepared for tanning. The Beam house was so named for the split beams, six feet long set on 45 degree angles, on which the operators would place the hides to scrape off the hair, flesh and the remaining fat deposits. Three steps were undertaken here. First, the hides were soaked in a lime water solution and repeatedly rinsed and scrapped by the beamers. The next step was “bating” where the hides were rinsed and placed in a pit containing fowl or dog dung which completed the removal of all unwanted fat deposits and other tissues not needed in the tanning process. Finally, they were put into another pit containing strong acids. The resulting chemical reaction opened up the fibers of the hides and importantly, changed the Ph of the hides so the actual tanning process could begin. (See Drawing 1)

The second and most crucial part of the tanning process was found in the Tannery. Vegetable tanned leather at the time of the Civil War was pit tanned in tubs or holes dug into the ground where the leather was soaked in a heavy solution of water and tree bark. “The sides, when brought from the beam-house to the tannery, are first placed in the stringer (or vats, 9′ x 8′ x 5′) and so tied up as to hang lengthwise in the pits. Seventy sides are put into each vat. There they hang in a weak ooze or infusion of oak bark for seven days. They are then handled daily for about five days more…..taking them out into the air, smoothing them out, sometimes rubbing them to remove ridges and wrinkles.” 1.  The chemical reaction generated from the natural tannin found in tree barks combine to make the leather decay resistance and gave it the qualities that are needed in the finished product. (See Drawing #2)

The final part in processing raw hides to finished leather was called “currying”. There were two important steps. The leather coming in from the tannery was called a “crust” since it was a semi-hard sheet of leather that must be re-wetted before “scouring” (currying operations) begins. “After tanning, the sides for harness leather are half dried to enable them to be worked easily. They are skived. The sides are then scoured, slicked and stoned on the grain side, and …on the flesh side, to remove superfluous moisture, glutinous substance and to stretch them. After these operations have been performed the leather is half dried, stretched and set by the vigorous use of the slicker upon the scouring table, with the grain side down. It is stuffed with a mixture of neat’s- foot oil and tallow, applied with a stiff hair brush to the flesh side, and hung up for a week to dry. 2. The above description was the first part (Fat Liquoring) of what a currier did to tailor the leather to fit the customer’s demands as to flexibility, strength, water resistence and other qualities. The second and final part gave leather its color and finish.  (See Drawing #3)

Drawing #1 (left): Beamer scrapping residue from the hide. Drawing #2 (middle): Tanning the hides in “ooze” solution of bark and water. Drawing #3 (right): Curryer “fat liquoring” and finishing the leather.
In all vegetable leather tanning, then as now, color is nothing more than the natural color of the leather after the tanning processes; that is to say,  whatever color the bark gives to the leather. Various barks were used but by far, the two most common in the 19th  century were oak and hemlock tree bark. Each strikes a unique color and imparts certain qualities to the leather. “Almost every tanning material stamps its own peculiar quality on the leather subjected to its action. The physical characteristics usually affected are the color, scent, toughness, or the power of resisting moisture or decay. Oak bark imparts firmness and solidity to the leather, while other barks give a greater or lessor degree of softness. This (oak) bark gives a lighter color and it is generally assumed better leather than hemlock. Chestnut oak is called “yellow oak” by tanners on account of the yellow color it imparts to the leather. The most desirable kinds of oak are procured from “rock oak” or “chestnut oak”3.  This type of bright yellow color resulted in what is known as “fair” leather, a leather color that only comes from oak bark tanning.

Hemlock bark (which is more acidic than oak), strikes a different color, “is rich in tanning and is little, if any inferior to oak for tanning purposes….[distinguished by] the dark reddish color [darker, browner, skin-toned color] it imparts to leather.” 4. The physical qualities needed in the finished leather product is what determines which bark the tanner uses in the tanning process but, the color that a bark strikes is what gives it the finished term “russet”. (Insert Photo #1)
Now, if yellow, “fair” leather comes from oak bark tanning and red-browns from hemlock tanning, why are there several colors of russet? What about the dark browns and chocolate browns that show up in original items? The answers to these questions are explained through the second step of the currying or finishing process. At this point, the currier decides which leather is left natural (fair) and which is stained or, dyed black, and then polished. The very best hides were left “fair” and  would have brought a higher price. Lesser quality hides that would not have passed for fair leather because of discolorations or blemishes were “stained” on the grain side with a solution of logwood and sal soda applied with a soft hair brush. 5. Staining widely varied the shades of brown found in bark tanned leather and was done for two reasons. The first, to even and enhance the color appearance and second, to increase the weight. Finished leather was sold by weight until the 1880’s. Thus, any and all methods were used to increase weight and profits. (Photo #2)

The currying process also included dyeing quality leather to black using iron mordants and mild acids. Interestingly, oak tanned leather could be dyed a permanent deep, rich black; however, dyeing hemlock tanned leather created unique problems. Due to it acidic nature hemlock tanned leather could not permanently accept black dye solutions. Despite tanners routinely cheating the process with special paints or dyes, Hemlock tanned leather would always eventually (often quickly) fade to a chocolate brown color so often seen in surviving artifacts (insert Photo #3). This was a big problem for the Federal Ordnance Bureau as the hemlock bark tree was very prominent in several of the north’s largest leather production states. 6. However, the problem is only occasionally seen in surviving CS artifacts. Hemlock bark is only found in the upper reaches of the Mason Dixon line so very little Confederate leather appears to have been tanned in this manner. Although official regulations both North and South prescribed leather be dyed black, delivery receipts from many southern tanneries contracted by the Confederacy suggest that this was not routine. In general, early war production tended to include more black dyed leather while russet was far more common later in the conflict. This was especially true of harness leather used in horse equipment. It is not clear exactly why but there are several likely reasons for this including time, cost, a lack of resources and simply, it was more convenient. 7. (Photo #4)

To further confuse the russet issue, another dark brown russet color similar to faded hemlock and quite often seen in Confederate equipment comes from imported English leather (sometimes called “London” leather). This is not a black faded to brown leather but a unique, rich brown color tanned overseas from English oak bark and stained using a staining formula different but likely similar to that used in America (Photos #5 , #6, #7) The Confederacy certainly imported large amounts of British leather for making equipment. Some of it may have been dyed black either here or abroad; however, most would likely have been this London leather color. 8. .
With all of these different types and colors of leather how does the untrained eye tell the difference? Regardless of the staining or dye treatment each can be distinguished by simply looking at the back side of the leather artifact. The two major barks of the time strike unique, entirely different colors. Oak bark always leaves a yellow color whereas hemlock always leaves a reddish skin tone color. (Photo # 8).

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