19th Century Leather Definitions

By David Jarnagin

Vegetable Tannage: “A generic term to cover the process of making leather by the use of tannins obtained from barks, woods or other parts of plants and trees, as distinguished from “mineral tannages”.

BeltVegetable tanned leather used in making drive belts for machinery.

Bridlevegetable tanned leather finished on the grain side “smooth side”.

Common RussetThis is a vegetable tanned leather that has undergone a very heavy oiling during the currying process, this was used for pump bags or bellows. This is not the russet leather used in military equipment. This leather would have been water resistance.

Fairleather in its natural color. This type of leather was oak tanned.

FleshThe rough side of the leather. Flesh, connects the skin proper very loosely to the underlying part of the body.

Glazed or VarnishedThis leather, known in the commerce as patent leather, is very largely used for dress boots and shoes, and for fancy mountings.

GrainThe smooth side of the leather. “The portion of the derma immediately in contact with the epidermis has been called the “grain membrane” because it forms the grain surface of finished leathers.

Oil finishedNatural colored leather finished with oil (the oil will darken color slightly)

Russet: See stained leather at the bottom of page.

SplitLeather which is made by removing the grain. This type leather is rough on both sides. This is the lower-valued leather, which is left when a light weight grain leather was needed.

Upper leatherSame as waxed leather. Also called the leather used to make shoe uppers.

Waxed: Leather finished on the rough side.

Period terms of finished leather. These were taken from Campbell Morfit’s book on tanning published in 1852.

Stretched Leather: The skins of cows and of young oxen made into crop-leather are the only ones which are fit for stretchers, and when thus prepared do not require the application of oil or tallow. Leather, prepared in this way, is not blackened. It is used by saddlers and harness-makers, and by shoemakers for the soles of pumps, and the upper soles of large shoes. (This type of leather may be what we think of as rein leather. The leather is well stretched and pressed to keep it from drawing up during the finial drying process. This type of leather was curried, more than likely a cod oil and neats-foot mix.) Stretched Leather was made from the same tannage as sole leather but the difference is in the currying. Sole leather was beaten and flattened to make it wear longer. Sole leather tannage was tanned longer than regular vegetable leather which would make the leather heavier and denser.

Sleeked Leather: which is intended chiefly for saddlers and harness-makers’ use, should be made of strong hides; thick cow-skins and ox-hides being generally preferred for the purpose. (This is black dyed leather that is finished by polishing with a lump of glass. This is not patent leather but would have a high shine. This is the leather used for the manufacture of cartridge boxes and the like. What would a saddler or harness-makers use this type of leather for?

Tallowed skins or grained leather: cow-skins are those the grain of which has been brought out, instead of being smoothed down and polished, as in sleeked leather. These skins are softer and more flexible than the latter, and are less liable to be penetrated by moisture; trunk-makers, saddlers, harness-makers make use of them for application of leather which require these qualities, and the largest of them for carriage-tops. (This may be what we think of as harness or bridle leather today.)

Oil-Leather: two kinds of oiled leather are manufactured, the one black, intended for the harness-makers; and the other uncolored, for the use of shoemakers. This kind of leather is exceedingly durable, and curriers always select, for the preparation of it, the most entire and well-tanned skins they can find. These sold in whole skins (hides) but for harness makers needs of a very strong skins, square oiled hides or croupons are prepared especially for them, or skins the head and belly pieces of which have been cut off. This makes the hide a croupon which was one meter forty-six in length, and one meter and some centimeters in breadth. This would have been done before the dyeing and finishing due to the note that the cut off pieces were uncolored and would have been a separate article. This type would have had the least stretch of any of the leathers but would have been fairly small pieces. This may have been used for girth straps and anything similar where stretching would be a problem.)

Buff Leather

Buff this leather original name was “losh” or “lash. I have seen it spelled both ways. Buff-leather for belts and Military purposes was not buffalo. This mistake is found in many different books even ones printed during the period. This leather was tanned from cow hides. These hide may have been ones with bacterial damage or skin defects since the grain surface would be removed during the tanning process.

The leather was subjected to a long lime and then sanded with a pumice stone or split by machine after they were invented. The oldest way is the sanding process, and was called buffing by tanners. So is the leather named for the sanding process or the color, since buff color is a yellowish gold color? If I find the answer I will post it on this page.

From reading records we know that buff leather could only be tanned during the spring and fall. This is due to the liming process that requires mild weather. This was a difficult and time consuming tanning process. After the Mexican war when the amount buff ordered fell off dramatically and when the army wanted more in the later 1850’s tanner were not interested. This is the reason that the army switched to waxed leather in 1858. In a letter from G. Bomford Bt Col. of April 17, 1828 states that: As this kind of leather (buff) is unsaleable, except for the public service. This shows that tanner were not willing to stock buff leather due to lack of sales to any other individuals beyond the Ordnance Dept.

Buff leather according to the Ordnance Dept. should be of a firm consistency, and should not be Spongy.

Buff leather is found in three forms.

  1. Natural or buff”: this is when no whiteners have been added to change the color from the color given by the oils during the tanning process. That was the thought about natural buff but I found that it was stained in order to give its distinctive yellow. This was done in order to give a more pleasant color to the leather. This may be the reason that it was said that it was impossible to get buff all in the same color.
  2. “Whitened buff”: buff leather with whiteners added in order to give a much lighter color. This color was not originally a pure white but tended to be in the range of a yellowish white or what we would call an antique white. Originally “whitened buff” was whitened with “Paris Whitening” this was a white chalk. [ I have added this term for clarity. The army referred “whitened buff” as buff. For more information on these two terms check out page 261 in Paul D. Johnson’s book on “Civil War Cartridge Boxes of the Union Infantryman”]
  3. “Blackened Buff”: This buff leather dyed black. This leather was also stained in order to give it a yellow color as can be seen on the back. I did see on buff belt that was a blackened buff belt to begin with but the blackening was removed and plates changed in order to make it look like an earlier belt but the yellow color gave it way as being later belt modified.


Hungary Leather

Hungary Leather is leather tanned from alum, common salt, and suet; this a very quick tanning process that was used for shoe laces and horse equipment. This type of leather was very strong leather. This type of leather could be tanned in about two months verses the 6 to 8 months of vegetable leather.

Morocco Leather

Morocco Leather is often listed today as red leather but this is not true with the Morocco of the 1800’s. The defining characteristic of this leather was that it was made from goat or kid skin. Imitation Morocco leather was sheep skin tanned in the same process. Morocco has a very unique grain surface (see picture at bottom of page), which is caused by the tanning process. The colors found in morocco leather are as follows, red, yellow, blue, bronze, purple, and black.

Russia Red Leather

Russia leather is a type of vegetable tanned leather, but has very distinctive oils used during the currying process. This oil has an aromatic scent, and because of this the leather has certain properties. These properties include insect resistance and mold and mildew resistance. This type of leather was used in book bindings and hat sweat bands. This type of leather was embossed with a pattern in the grain surface of the leather, such as a diamond pattern as well as others. The leather is known for its distinctive red color, but was also dyed black. This leather is no longer tanned.

White Leather

White Leather is the type used by shoe makers. This leather is called white since nothing had been done to the leather, i.e. only currying and no dyeing and finishing. This is listed with one note: not all shoe makers used this type of leather. There are examples of original shoe showing finishing of the leather was done prior to the manufacturing of the shoe itself.


Leather Finishes

Copperas- One type of the iron mordents used in dyeing leather black. This is the type of iron most preferred tanners and was commercially available in a product called Patent Liquid Grain.

Enameled Leather- This type of leather is often referred to as “tarred” but tanneries refer to it as enameled. Enameled leather could be had in various colors, not just black. This type of finish was applied to the grain surface after it had been buffed down. A cheaper grade of this material was made from split leather. The type of finish is very close to patent leather.

Jacked- A glazed finish applied by rubbing the leather either by hand or by machine.

Patent Leather- leather having a very high shine with the finish applied to the flesh side. The way to tell this leather from enameled leather is that the grain surface will still be found on the back of the leather. This finish differs from modern patent leather, by having a deep transparent shine. Modern patent has a surface shine only. Patent Leather could be found in a number of colors. White, Red, Blue, Yellow, Black, and Leather color.

Pyrolignate of iron A type of the iron mordents used in dyeing leather black. This type of iron is listed in the Ordnance Manual but is not found in the tanning looks from the time.

Sleeked- A glazed finish applied by hand.

Stained- A period finishing technique where a darker brown color is obtained by staining the leather with logwood. This type leather is found on canteen slings, and Musket slings. This was done to hemlock tanned leather and any leather that contained blemishes or discoloration that could not be sold as “fair” leather.

Interesting Information

Logwood was introduced into Europe by the Spaniards shortly after the discovery of America. It is undoubtedly to-day the most important of the natural dye-stuffs. Logwood is sometimes called Campeachy Wood having been originally exported from the Bay of Campeachy.

Leather Industries of America Research Laboratory Dictionary of Leather Terminology, University of Cincinnati, Eight edition 1991 Page 14.