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A brief history of the U.S. leather industry discussed

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In spite of the use of synthetic substitutes in recent decades, many things are still made of leather. Today, cattle hides are very plentiful in the U.S., but most hides are actually discarded when animals are butchered, even though leather has become very expensive.  

The tanning industry, which was a major enterprise for many years, is almost nonexistent in the U.S. these days. It costs a lot to get a hide tanned, and it may end up being a poorly done job. While most tanning companies are now located in other countries, there are a few left in the U.S. 

In the early days of America, tanning was an important industry. At first, most leather products, boots and shoes were made in Concord, Mass., which is where the majority of the early boot companies were located. 

According to Darol Dickenson of Dickenson Cattle Co., it was a complicated process. Dickenson, who raises colorful Longhorn cattle and sells beautiful, tanned hair hides, no longer has his hides tanned in the U.S. because it is too expensive. Instead, he has them tanned in Brazil.

Early history 

The early hide industry in colonial America was an interesting business.  

“Ships would leave the East Coast and go south, down around the cape of South America, into the Pacific Ocean and sail into northern waters, north of Seattle,” says Dickenson. “They hunted sperm whales to get high-quality oil, which was very valuable in those days. They had tanks for the oil, and they would kill enough whales to fill those tanks.”

On their way back down the West Coast, ships would stop at the port at San Francisco. In those days, there were many cattle there – beginning with the early Spanish missions and ranches. There were herds of Longhorn and Mexican cattle, so there was a lot of rawhide available, he notes. 

“The whaling fleet would buy a boatload of rawhides at San Francisco, then sail back down around the cape of South America. It took weeks to get around the cape and back up to Concord,” Dickenson says. 

On this long journey, they tanned the hides, and by the time they got back to Concord, they would have a boatload of tanned hides.

“The shoe and boot manufacturers would meet the ships at the port. They would hold an auction and bid on the hides. It was a major source of leather for the nation for a quite a while,” he explains.  

Industry sees change

There were local tanneries in various regions for a long time. However, after synthetic materials came along and people started buying tennis shoes instead of leather shoes, everything changed.

“Another change occurred when hide tanning companies in the U.S. started to unionize. The unions decided tanning was a nasty job and workers should get paid more,” Dickenson notes. “They used to be paid about 50 cents an hour, and now a union tanner makes $50 an hour. If a person decided to tan the hide of their favorite bull, they will have to pay $800 to $1,000 just for the tanning fee.”

Brazil tanning industry 

Since Brazil doesn’t have unions, a lot of tanning companies are now located there.  

“The Brazilians also invented a way to split cowhides,” Dickenson states. “They put the hide under a press and slice it.”

“The top half, with the hair on, is sold to furniture companies and consumers who want a hair-on hide,” he explains. “The bottom half used to be shipped to China and Asian manufacturers of tennis shoes. These companies would take a little strip of the backside of the leather to put around the toe of the shoe. Then they could say it contained real leather.”

Now, Brazilian companies can do a triple split.  

“They have a third, thin layer of leather, and most of the leather garments today come from Brazil. Jackets and other nice leather outfits are made from the triple-split, thin leather,” he says.

“I have an importer I get the hides from for our Longhorn store. We sell hides for $350 to $500, which is about one-third of the price of tanning them in the U.S. This is what the unions have done to us,” he continues.

“Years ago, when we took a steer to process, the butcher would trade us the kill fee for the hide. There was some value for the hide, and they didn’t charge us to kill the steer and hang him on the rail,” Dickenson adds.

As the union tanners’ cost went up, the value of hides went down.  

“Now, the processing plant for my beef throws the hides in a dumpster. The cattle hides have absolutely zero value,” he says. “We have to work around whatever costs us the most and ship our hides to another country to be processed.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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