The history of brain tanning from ancient times to the present, a six page article by Matt Richards
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The History of Brain Tan

Adapted for the web from a chapter in Deerskins into Buckskins
by Matt Richards
When most people think of buckskin they envision long fringed Indians on horseback or adventurous frontiersmen on a remote mountain hunt. Little do they know that it was once as common as blue jeans. Did you know that it was the work clothes of the common laborer in 18th century America and Europe? That General George Washington ordered buckskins to be made for the troops? Or that it was fashionable among the elite of Europe? Remember those images of men in powder white wigs, breeches and long stockings. Guess what those breeches were made of... Have you ever told a friend, "uh, that cost me a couple of bucks". Well that's because buckskin was such a common commodity of exchange in the American colonies that after the Revolution, buck became the slang for a dollar bill. But deer me, that's getting ahead of things, lets go back to the beginning.
Genesis iii 21: "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them."

The Stone Age

Zulu brain tanning?
Zulu hide tanning
Stone age peoples, cavemen, and hunter gatherers all over the world had some things in common. Soaking hides in brains and pulling them soft seems to be one of them. It was part of the daily life of primitive peoples on every continent. There are accounts of brain and/or smoke tanning by the Zulus of southern Africa (brains), the Chukchee of eastern Russia (liver, urine and smoke), nomadic peoples of Asia (fermented milk, butter, and egg yolk), northern Asia (brains, liver and sour milk,) China (smoke), South America (smoke) and North America (brains, smoke, liver, sweet corn, eggs, pine nuts, yucca root and a whole lot of other things!). Here's an account from Japan:
"An oil tanning process which appears to be ancient, but which is still carried on in Japan.....

To prepare Koshuinden leather, one starts with dried deerskin which has been soaked to the extent that the grain layer, together with the hair can be shaved away with a skiving knife. Tanning is accomplished by coating with animal brain matter or spinal-cord substance, for which mechanical tumbling, kneading, and staking probably are indispensable. A smoke tanning now follows, according the the description of Sawayama..."

From Chemistry and Technology of Leather edited by Fred O'Flaherty, 1956
Although English and German tanners were brain tanning as recently as the late 19th and early 20th century, all that remains from stone age Europe are some bone and stone tanning tools. The earliest record of European tanning is in
Homer's Iliad (389 f.):

"The ox hide, which is soaked in fat, is pulled to and fro by men standing in a circle, thus stretching the skin and causing the fat to penetrate into the pores."

One of the things I really like about buckskin is that if we could look back far enough, nearly every one of us would find some ancestor who lived their lives wearing this wonderful garment. Its something we have in common. Getting skins soft was undoubtedly one of the very first arts that ancient humans developed.

Many a campfire has been spent wondering why or who first thought to put brains on a skin? and then stretch it ... dry. Recently I stumbled upon the true story. An Iroquois tale:

"A stiff deer skin was one day walking around from house to house through an Indian village, frightening everyone it visited. At last it went to the house of a man who was boiling deer's brains for a vomit. He did not propose to be frightened by this mysterious skin out of his house, and therefore he poured the hot water solution of deer's brains upon the stiff skin which at once softened it down, took away from it all power of motion, and flattened it to the floor. The people in fright had been shooting it with arrows. After it was softened they began to pull it and thus resulted the tanned deer skins."
From Lewis H. Morgan's Iroquois Material Culture, 1855.
Like most great inventions, it was purely accidental.

 
   
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