The use of animal hides for clothing and basic survival items can be traced back as far as Early Man in the Paleolithic period. Cave paintings discovered in caves near Lerida in Spain depict the use of leather clothing. Man hunted wild animals for food but removed their hides and skins from the dead carcass and used them as crude tents, clothing and footwear.
Early man realized that the skins rapidly putrefied and thus became useless. They needed a way to preserve the hides. The earliest method was to stretch the hides and skins on the ground to dry, rubbing them with fats and animals brains while they dried. This had a limited preserving and softening action. Primitive man discovered also that the smoke of wood fires could preserve hides and skins, as did treating them with an infusion of tannin-containing barks, leaves, twigs and fruits of certain trees and plants. It seems likely that man first discovered how to make leather when he found that animal skins left lying on a wet forest floor became tanned naturally by chemicals released by decaying leaves and vegetation.
Much later the use of earth salts containing alum as a tanning agent to produce soft white leather was discovered. The alum leathers could be dyed with naturally occurring dyestuffs in various plants. In Egyptian times leather was used for sandals, clothes, gloves, buckets, bottles, shrouds for burying the dead and for military equipment. In Egyptian tombs, wall paintings and artifacts depicted these uses of leather.
The Romans also used leather on a wide scale for footwear, clothes, and military equipment including shields, saddles and harnesses. Excavation of Roman sites in Great Britain has yielded large quantities of leather articles such as footwear and clothing.The manufacture of leather was introduced to Britain by the Roman invaders and by religious communities, whose monks were expert at making leather, especially vellum and parchment for writing purposes.
The ancient Britons had many uses for leather from footwear, clothing and leather bags, to articles of warfare. The hulls of the early boats, known as coracles, were also covered in leather. Through the centuries leather manufacture expanded steadily and by mediaeval times most towns and villages had a tannery, situated on the local stream or river, which they used as a source of water for processing and as a source of power for their water wheel driven machines. Many of these tanneries still exist, but in many towns the only remaining evidence is in street names, like Tanner Street, Bark Street and Leather Lane.