Leather Research

From Wiki

Leather is frequently encountered in cultural artifacts, and conservators are working to increase their understanding of the material, its aging properties, and preservation options. This page is intended to collect and summarize research of interest to conservators on leather. If the work is published, citations are available in the Bibliography. We also welcome descriptions of ongoing research projects.

Other related pages in the AIC Wiki include BPG Animal Skin and Leather in the BPG Wiki, which describes the chemistry of skin and its tannage, Leather and Skin in the OSG Wiki, and a page on Stabilizing Wet Skin and Leather during emergency response, and BPG Use of Leather in Book Conservation in the BPG Wiki.

Wiki Compilers: Katherine Wagner and Kristi Wright
Wiki Contributors: Firstname Lastname, your name could be here

Copyright 2021. The Book and Paper Group Wiki is a publication of the Book and Paper Group of the American Institute for Conservation. It is published as a convenience for the members of the Book and Paper Group. Publication does not endorse nor recommend any treatments, methods, or techniques described herein. Information on researching with the wiki and citing the BPG Wiki can be found on the Reference and Bibliography Protocols page. The BPG Wiki coordinators can be reached at bookandpapergroup.wiki@gmail.com.

Cite this page:

Leather Research. 2021. Book and Paper Group Wiki. American Institute for Conservation (AIC). Accessed September 24, 2021. https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Leather_Research

Past Research Initiatives[edit | edit source]

Historical timeline of leather testing

19th century leather research[edit | edit source]

Sulfur in gas lighting[edit | edit source]

Date: 1841
Location: London, England
Affiliation(s): Athenaeum Club
Participants: Michael Faraday, William Thomas Brande, Arthur Aikin, Robert(?) Brown, William Prout
Premise: Widespread decay in leather bookbindings was noted. In some libraries, bindings would deteriorate in just 2-3 years. Circulating books would not deteriorate as much as companion volumes left on the shelves.
Summary: The sulfur in gas lighting theory focused on the assertion that gas lighting raised the sulfur content of interior air in libraries. The team postulated that moisture containing sulfuric acid was condensing on books, especially in the upper levels of the stacks, and depositing sulfuric acid on the bindings. As the acid accumulated it accelerated decay. Faraday attempted to solve the problem at the Athenaeum Club by collecting the gas lighting’s combustion products in glass cylinders and carrying them away in connected tubes so that the sulfuric acid would not accumulate in the room.
Impact: The theory was corroborated by similar observations from multiple libraries across the country and alternatives to gas lighting were explored.

Sulfuric acid in tanning[edit | edit source]

Date: 1851
Location: Manchester, England
Affiliation(s): Chetham Library
Participants: Frederick Crace Calvert
Premise: Sulfuric acid attributed to both atmospheric sources and the tanning process.
Summary: The Chetham library consulted with Frederick Crace Calvert to determine the cause of leather decay in their collection. Because the library did not use gas lamps, which were widely blamed for the decay, Calvert explored the possibility that leather decay was due to either atmospheric pollution from coal consumption or sulfuric acid used in the tanning process.
Impact: While tanning processes did use sulfuric acid at this time, Calvert's theory was overshadowed by a continued focus on sulfuric acid accumulation from gas lighting.

Sulfur in coal gas[edit | edit source]

Date: 1854
Location: London
Affiliation(s): The Commissioners of Sewers of the City of London
Participants: Henry Letheby
Premise: Byproducts of coal consumption contribute to leather decay.
Summary: Letheby presented his Report on the Coal Gas Supplied to the City of London : with examples of the injury done to books, &c., by the products of its combustion to London sewer commissioners, highlighting its impurities and health risks. In addition to a reporting on the condition of books in multiple libraries, he collected gas products from the air and from the Athenaeum club's specially designed ventilation pipes, applying them to leather, paper, linen, and cotton to demonstrate the products' ability to decay the materials.
Impact: Letheby's emphasis on the harmful effect of both London's atmosphere and interior gas lighting on library collections demonstrated the widespread nature of the issue.

Changes to library architecture[edit | edit source]

Date: 1859
Location: London, England
Affiliation(s): Royal Society of Arts
Participants: John Leighton
Premise: Changes to library architecture may help with book preservation.
Summary: John Leighton contributed an essay titled "On the library, books, and binding particularly with regard to their restoration and preservation" in the 1859 edition of the Journal of the Society of Arts, which proposed an ideal library design, complete with lighting and architectural recommendations.
Impact: Leighton recommended glass cases to protect volumes prone to decay from atmospheric conditions and that libraries use oil lamps or natural light in lieu of gas. By the 1877 Conference of Librarians in London (see below) several librarians mentioned architectural considerations in light of preserving leather bindings.

Conference of Librarians[edit | edit source]

Date: 1876, 1877
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1876) and London, England (1877)
Affiliation(s): Conference of Librarians
Participants: Librarians in America and Europe
Premise: Investigate the relationship between library architecture, gas lighting, and leather deterioration
Summary: The effects of gas lighting, heat, and library architecture on leather bindings had been discussed at the 1876 conference in Philadelphia and the discussion continued at the 1877 London conference. These appear to be some of the first published international discussions regarding leather deterioration. Guillaume Depping, assistant librarian at the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve, Paris, requested that the Conference of Librarians create rules or principles for building libraries that would improve preservation.
Impact: While the committee did form, the findings were not published.

Action of gas fumes[edit | edit source]

Date: 1880
Location: Birmingham, England
Affiliation(s): Birmingham Library
Participants: C.J. Woodward
Premise: Assessment of the absorption of sulfuric acid into skins using gas fumes
Summary: C.J. Woodward published one of the last studies to focus on gas lighting in 1888. Gas lighting was actively being replaced by electric lighting across the world, removing this source of sulfuric acid accumulation from public view

Central School of Arts & Crafts discussions[edit | edit source]

Date: 1898
Location: London, England
Affiliation(s): Central School of Arts & Crafts, London; Herold's Institute, Bermondsey; Yorkshire University, Leeds
Participants: T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, Doublas Cockerell, Cyril Davenport, James Gordon Parker, Henry Richardson Proctor
Premise: Bookbinders collaborate with scientists to find a long-lasting leather
Summary: London bookbinders, some of which are listed above, felt that the overall quality of leather on the market was poor. Electric lighting was now common, and they asked Parker and Proctor to look into leather degradation. The group met periodically but ultimately decided the project was too large for them alone.
Impact: Led to the formation of the Royal Society of Arts Committee on Leather for Bookbinding in 1900.

20th century leather research[edit | edit source]

Committee on Leather for Bookbinding[edit | edit source]

Date: 1900-1905
Location: London, England
Affiliation(s): Royal Society of Arts, Court of the Leathersellers Company
Bookbinders: T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, Douglas Cockerell, Cyril Davenport, Walter James Leighton, Sarah T. Prideaux, Joseph Zaehnsdorf
Leather manufacturers: Siegmund Hermann Epstein, Ernest Fuller, A. Seymour-Jones
Scientists: John Evans, Morris Charles Lamb, James Gordon Parker, William Henry Perkin, Henry Richardson Proctor
Librarians: Edward Gordon Duff, Richard Garnett, Herbert Maxwell
Others: William Abney (chairman), John Cavendish Lyttelton (chairman), Henry Trueman Wood (secretary)
Premise: 1.) Determine whether perceptions of leather decay were objective 2.) Determine chemical analysis of leathers and deterioration factors
Summary: The RSA committee on leather for bookbinding directly addressed the declining quality of leather, assessing it from both internal (tanning) and external (environmental, treatment) sources. A preliminary report in 1901 proved that funded research was needed, subsequently provided by the Court of the Leathersellers Company. The committee documented the deteriorated state of library bindings, determining that the majority of the decay was in nineteenth century leather, evaluated problems in the tanning process, addressed library preferences, and assessed the relative fading of leather dyes. The report culimates with recommendations to tanners, bookbinders, and librarians regarding leather creation, selection and use.
Impact: Tanners were asked to use approved tannins, sumac being one example, and to avoid sulfuric acid during tanning. Bookbinders were encouraged to user thicker skins rather than paring them excessively or having them shaved down. Librarians were given preservation and binding policy recommendations.

Sound Leather Committee[edit | edit source]

Date: 1904-1905
Location: London, England
Affiliation(s): Library Association
Participants: Cyril Davenport, J.P. Edmond, J. Gordon Parker, E. Wyndham Hulme
Premise: Determine whether council members would accept a common standard for bookbinding leather.
Summary: Following up on the RSA Committee recommendations, the Sound Leather Committee explored the possibility of formalizing a standard. Parker was appointed to analyze leather sent by consumers and started publishing advertisements for this analysis, alongside his schedule of fees, in journals. Their findings were published in the 1905 report, Leather for Libraries.
Impact: Standards were not officialy adopted, but the United Kingdom did insert a clause into their government binding contracts that required leather meet certain minimum qualifications. Leathermakers started stamping their leather 'free of all injurious acids' in order to assure buyers of its quality. Though this and the RSA Committee were both London-based, their declarations had international impact.

21st century leather research[edit | edit source]

Ongoing Research Initiatives[edit | edit source]

Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT)[edit | edit source]

The Institute for Creative Leather Technologies is based at the University of Northampton in Northhampton, UK.
The Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT) is a research and education center. Their research responds to the scientific and technological needs of the automotive, fashion, footwear and allied leather industries. The ICLT works in partnership with external organizations such as the Leathersellers' Company, the National Leather Collection, and the Leather Conservation Centre
The ICLT maintains a research page containing ways to access their publications.

Leather Discussion Group[edit | edit source]

The Leather Discussion Group was formed in 2016 by four book conservators:
  • Holly Herro, Senior Conservator, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine
  • William Minter, Senior Book Conservator, The Pennsylvania State University Libraries
  • Katie Wagner, Senior Book Conservator, Smithsonian Libraries
  • Kristi Wright, Contract Book Conservator, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine
The Leather Discussion Group aims to acquire a better understanding of leather and the leather dyes traditionally used in conservation. The initial goals were to determine the best products available to meet the needs of conservation, to make those needs more apparent to leather manufacturers, and to identify effective methods to evaluate a skin’s quality and longevity. Since that time regular, leather-focused, meetings have furthered these goals.

Ongoing conversations with and survey results from leather chemists, tanners, and conservators in multiple disciplines continues to provide valuable feedback. The group gave a panel presentation at AIC’s 2018 pre-conference symposium entitled “The Current Use of Leather in Conservation” covering changes to the tanning process, previous leather research, and the group’s current activities and goals.
Research topics include:
  • The beginning of the leather process – the quality of the raw skin - with an exploration of changes in North American animal husbandry from the colonial era to the modern day.
  • The influence of bookbinders' and conservators' choices when selecting and using leather
Do you have an interest in leather usage and longevity? Please contribute to the Leather Discussion Group's conversation by participating in this Leather Survey!
Minter et al. 2020. "Changes in North American Animal Husbandry from the 17th Century to the Present". In Proceedings of the 11th interim meeting of the ICOM-CC Leather and Related Materials Working Group. Paris: International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) and Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation. 179-182.

Quality Tests for Leather[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Athenaeum Club, London. 1842. “Report of the Committee” in “Addenda to Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Athenaeum." London: W Clowes and Sons. Accessed March 24, 2021.

Conference of Librarians, London. 1877. Transactions and Proceedings of the Conference of Librarians Held in London. London: Chiswick Press. Accessed March 23, 2021.

Dana, John Cotton. 1910. "Leather, General Notes." Notes on Bookbinding for Libraries. Newark, NJ: Free Public Library. 93-100. Accessed March 24, 2021.

Dewey, Melvil, ed. 1876. "The Library Journal." Journal of the American Library Association 1. Accessed March 23, 2021.

Hulme, E. Wyndham, et al. 1905. Leather for Libraries. London: The Library Supply Co. Accessed March 24, 2021.

Leighton, John. 1859. "On the library, books, and binding, particularly with regard to their restoration and preservation." The Journal of the Society of Arts. 327. 207-222. Accessed March 23, 2021.

Letheby, Henry. 1854. Report on the coal gas supplied to the City of London : with examples of the injury done to books, &c., by the products of its combustion. . London: C. Dawson. Accessed March 23, 2021.

Minter et al. 2020. "Changes in North American Animal Husbandry from the 17th Century to the Present". In Proceedings of the 11th interim meeting of the ICOM-CC Leather and Related Materials Working Group. Paris: International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) and Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation. 179-182.

Society of Arts, The. 1905. Report of the Committee on Leather for Bookbinding. London: George Bell & sons. Accessed March 24, 2021.

History of This Page[edit | edit source]

This page was created in 2019 within the BPG Wiki, but the compilers intend for it to become a more general topic page across specialty groups.

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