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A Well Written Piece On The History Of The Currier (Tanner)

Discussion in 'Taxidermy History' started by John Janelli, May 13, 2017.

  1. John Janelli

    John Janelli New Member

    Although I did not write this, it's most interesting to learn the origins of the tanning profession that no doubt came to our American shores via the immigrant populations of the Old World. Hope you agree after reading it.

    Man has worn leather since the beginning of recorded history. Thousands of
    our ancestors were employed in the trade. Hats, gloves, shoes, boots,
    jackets, jerkins and trousers were popularly made of leather, particularly
    from medieval times until the 19th century. There was also a huge demand for
    riding and farming equipment made from the material. The trade changed with
    the arrival of synthetic fabrics and the decline of horse transport, but
    leather is still important in the luxury market today. Craftsmen developed
    skills associated with different aspects of the trade. Some still exist
    today, such as those of the tanner, cobbler and saddler. Other skills, such
    as those of the Cordwainer and Currier, do not. For many years they were all
    interlinked, each craftsman dependent on the skills of the others for his

    The trade of currying was a vital part of the early leather industry.
    Currying was the name given to the process of stretching and finishing
    tanned leather, thus, rendering it supple and strong for the use of a
    saddler or cobbler.
    The name Currier is believed to be taken from the Latin term ‘corium’. The
    corium is the central skin layer between the outer epidermis and the flesh
    underneath, made up of a complex series of fibres. The make up of this layer
    dictates the difference in texture between leathers.

    Traditionally, animal skins were cured by treating them with animal fat.
    This stage was followed by leaving them stretched out to dry, either in the
    sun or before a fire. In Britain, due to the climate, the skin was normally
    dried in front of a fire. This basic system was in use thousands of years
    before Christ and was still used on buffalo skins by North American Indians
    in the late 1800’s. Medieval Europeans improved upon these methods and those
    tradesmen skilled in the methods of making skins into a flexible, durable
    material, grew in importance.

    To understand the role performed by the Currier, it is necessary to look at
    the earlier stages in the leather-making process. An animal skin was first
    delivered to a tannery, generally located in a town. There it was soaked and
    cleaned of any remnants of animal tissue. The skin then underwent the
    liming" procedure, where it was repeatedly washed and left in a solution of
    quick lime to increase absorbency. After being cut to a suitable size, the
    skin was placed in successive tanks of progressively stronger tanning
    solution. The solution used for tanning was traditionally made from oak bark

    The unfinished leather now passed to the Currier, whose craft was to
    transform the stiff material into a pliant, workable material for the final
    craftsman to transform into the finished product. Curriers were found in
    many villages, indeed sometimes the Currier was also the local shoemaker.

    The art of currying leather was hard manual labour, needing great skill and
    a range of special hand tools. The Currier worked on a variety of hides,
    principally ox, cow, calf, goat, sheep, pig and deer. He may have
    occasionally dressed squirrel and rabbit. The hide was first stretched on a
    variety of different frames, depending on the type of leather to be curried.
    The Currier would gradually tighten the frame, notch by notch, from every
    direction until satisfied that the hide was as taut as possible. Another
    method of stretching the skin was by using an implement resembling a mangle
    or rack, where a handle was turned, gradually tightening the material.
    Once stretched, the tanned leather was washed and scrubbed. This part of the
    process was demanding physical labour, to soften the hide. The Currier then
    went to work with a ‘sleeker’, a short bladed knife. The sleeker forced the
    remaining tanning fluid from the hide. The skin was then ready to be dressed
    to make it smooth, waterproof, strong and flexible.

    The inner side of the skin was made more even by the use of a currying knife
    or ‘shave’. The blade of this knife ran at right angles to the handle, thus
    enabling it to be worked like a wood plane, shaving the surface of the
    leather. This part of the process called for great skill and judgement. Too
    steep a cut could render a valuable hide worthless. (Four pairs of crossed
    shaves, and a single shave held aloft, now form prominent features on the
    coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Curriers.)
    The currying knife was also used for the delicate task of splitting the
    leather into different widths. Of course, the thickness required was
    dictated by the purpose for which the leather was intended. The suppler
    split leather was used for the uppers of shoes and boots. The heavier
    leather from the ‘butt’ or backbone of the skin was used for soles.

    Once it had been trimmed to a suitable size and thickness, the Currier
    actually carried out the process of currying. That is, massaging into the
    leather equal quantities of beef tallow and cod liver oil. Once curried,
    leather could be used for a wider range of purposes, and also stained or
    dyed. The work of British Curriers was held in high esteem throughout Europe

    Like most rural trades, currying often became a family tradition with skills
    passed from father to son. The finished product was frequently taken by
    other members of the family, living in the same village, for crafting into
    shoes, gloves, belts or some such.
    The craft was practised in villages across the whole of Britain. When an
    ancestor is found showing his trade as Currier in a census return, it is
    likely that other family members will be engaged in the leather trade.
    Although places like Glastonbury in Somerset and the Northampton area
    developed into centres of the leather industry, smaller cottage leather
    treatment works could be found across the length and breadth of the country.

    In London, at the end of the 16th century, there was a Currier’s Lane off
    Fleet Street, another off Bristol Street and a Currier’s Arms Inn Yard in
    Goswell Street. The majority of London Curriers appear to have resided in
    the Farringdon Road and Fleet Street area.
    It was necessary to serve a seven year apprenticeship before following the
    trade. The apprentice Currier was bound similarly to those in other
    professions. It was stated that, Until a man grows unto the age of 23 years,
    he has not grown unto the full knowledge of the trade he professes. The
    apprentice lived with the family, being fed, housed and clothed by his
    master. He could not qualify until submitting a proof-piece of his work for
    inspection. Many of the apprenticeship records survive today, providing
    records of both master and apprentice Curriers.

    The earliest record of currying in England is in the City of London
    Coroner’s Roll for 9 February 1276. This covers an inquest into the death of
    a Currier’s wife living off Newgate Street, London. She apparently died as a
    result of a broken leg after falling down drunk in the street!

    By the 14th century, Curriers were men of importance, but had no independent
    trade guild. Their prosperity was due in part to the demand for leather from
    soldiers engaged in wars with France and Scotland. Leather was used to link
    plates of armour, as well as for items of soldier’s clothing.

    The earliest rules of the trade were recorded in 1300. These laid down the
    maximum prices a Currier could charge a skinner for the dressing of skins.
    Four ‘searchers’ were empowered to enforce these rules, one of whom was a
    Currier. Any Currier charging too much would have a fine imposed by these
    four men, according to the degree of transgression. As an example, the
    Currier could not take more than 7 pence for dressing the skins of a hundred
    ‘scrimpyns’ (a skin of inferior quality to that of the rabbit).
    In 1485, during the reign of Henry VII, further laws for the trade were laid
    down. Leather discovered improperly ‘tanned, sealed and curried’, could
    result in the Currier facing five days in jail and a 20-shilling fine - 10
    for the King and 10 to the wronged party. If a Currier should carry out the
    tanning of a skin, he faced a fine of 6 shillings and 8 pence for each skin
    so treated.

    In 1559, Parliament passed an Act affecting the leather industry, designed
    to improve standards and stop some improper practices. Curriers were
    forbidden the use of ‘stale uryne or any other deceipfull or subtill
    mixture’ to cure hides. No leather was to be stripped too thinly or sold
    with a blemish. Fines and forfeits were entered on the statute book.

    The Curriers had to wait until 1583 before they were granted arms, which,
    not surprisingly, featured the curry knife as the centrepiece. Then, in the
    17th century, James I incorporated the Currier’s Guild. This gave the trade
    powers of search and inspection within the City of London, thus enabling it
    to enforce craft standards. The Curriers formed their own City of London
    Livery Company. The original charter, dating from 30 April 1605, is
    preserved at Guildhall. This lays down rules and regulations for Curriers
    belonging to the Livery Company, including such statutes as a ‘fine of 4
    pence a day with meat and drink from the Master, if a Journeyman be
    unemployed through the Master’s default’ and a fine of 6 pence for the
    journeyman if he should absent himself from work. The charters, books and
    records of the company, appertaining to London Curriers, were deposited with
    Guildhall Library for safekeeping in 1950.

    The Company published bye-laws on 4 June 1605. These imposed fines for poor
    workmanship, and standardised regulations for premises where currying may be
    carried out. They should be ‘fitting and convenient for the use of the said
    art.’ Work on leather had to cease at noon on Saturday and the afternoon had
    to be employed in cleaning houses, sharpening tools and ‘grayning and
    shaving of boote legges against the next working day’.
    The early history of the Curriers can be researched at Guildhall Library,
    the Public Records Office and the British Museum. Names are listed in
    letterbooks, journals, coroner’s rolls, Plea and Memoranda Rolls, Wills of
    the Court of Husting and Court Minutes of the Livery Company.

    The trade steadily declined in the early part of this century. In Suffolk,
    for example, White’s Directory listed 40 Curriers working in 1844. By 1922
    only eight remained. At the start of the Second World War there were none.

    The process of currying still takes place today. Leather still needs to be
    supple, durable and the right texture for the finishing process.

    However, today currying has been largely incorporated into the tanning stage
    and no separate trade exists. The heavy physical task of treating the skin
    is now carried out by machine, except in the case of certain high value
    goods, which are still hand finished. Generally speaking, the arrival of the
    machine age effectively killed off the trade.

    By Brian M. Morley - 2005

    MixedupMel and harriekat like this.

    TIMBUCK Active Member

    Great read.. Thanks for sharing J.J.
    MixedupMel likes this.

  3. Bruce_Rittel

    Bruce_Rittel Consultant Services

    A great Post John! I truly admire your historical background and particularly this article. Currier Knives have always been interesting to me - simply because they represent the first "Shaving Machines" and their blades! I also enjoyed your post about "Womens Work" - it was also a great piece. and well said. You truly represent someone interested in the history of our Industry! I applaud your postings here on the Taxidermy.Net! Many Thanks to you! Many!

    Remember our working with a Currier's Knife in NJ at the GSTA Convention years ago? I still remember it well. It was a fine contribution to a bygone part of our Trade!

    By the way, I want to Thank you so much for that Sinclair Clark Award you gave me in NJ years ago! It hangs here over my Computer and it is the proudest moment of my Taxidermy/Tanning career. Thank you John! It's an award I will always treasure.

    Thank you for your contributions to our Industry. You have earned and deserve our gratitude!
    MixedupMel likes this.
  4. furtanshop

    furtanshop New Member

    Good morning John.

    Thanks for sharing that wonderful find and the origin of the curriers knife.

    Most taxidermist will never know the benefits of the curriers knife and a properly shaped set of beams.

    Sharping and turning the blade is a challenge

    Suffolk , England is a huge center for wool on tanning of sheep.

    The piece leaves out the bating step after liming using dog dung , but does mention the banning of stale urine
    MixedupMel and harriekat like this.
  5. Allie

    Allie Active Member

    Fascinating, JJ. Thanks!
    MixedupMel likes this.
  6. John Janelli

    John Janelli New Member

    Thanks very much for the appreciation folks. If anyone would like to take the time and walk me through a crash course in posting photos, I'd be able to share more than half of my collection here. Not to mention hundreds of hall of fame slides, films and documents of our heritage.
    MixedupMel likes this.