Impression of a Buenos Aires slaughterhouse by Charles Pellegrini, 1829.

Mapping Supply Chains for 19th Century Leather

Impression of a Buenos Aires slaughterhouse by Charles Pellegrini, 1829.

By Andrew Watson with Jim Clifford

For the past two weeks I’ve been in Saskatoon, working with Jim Clifford in the University of Saskatchewan’s Historical Geographic Information Systems (HGIS) Lab. Since January 2014 I’ve been working with Jim and Colin Coates on the Trading Consequences research project thinking about how historians can use these valuable new text mining, database and visualization tools to understand the economic and environmental histories of global commodity flows during the nineteenth century. This trip to Saskatchewan has allowed Jim and I to focus our energies on using Trading Consequences for historical research. We used text-mined spatial data in conjunction with trade statistics and textual sources as a means of testing the search results and functionality of Trading Consequences. To do this, we chose a case study: the history of leather tanning related commodities during the nineteenth century.

Neckinger Leather Mills  Wellcome Images on Flickr Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

Neckinger Leather Mills Wellcome Images on Flickr Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

We chose leather tanning for our case study because this topic intersects with both our research interests. Jim is interested in how industrial development across London, including the leather district of Bermondsey, contributed to broader environmental transformations through the development of global commodity flows. Part of my recently completed doctoral research examined the economic and environmental dimensions of hemlock bark harvesting for leather tanneries in Muskoka, Ontario during the same time period. Trading Consequences provides the opportunity to learn more about the ways tanneries in Muskoka and London functioned as part of transnational networks in hides, tannins and leather.

Apart from some primary and secondary source background reading, our work over these initial two weeks of research on this project focused almost exclusively on exploring nineteenth century trade statistics for Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Theses statistics came mainly from the Annual Statement of the Trade of the United Kingdom with Foreign Countries and British Possessions, which the HGIS Lab’s research assistant, Stephen Langlois, entered into a Commodity Flows database. With the help of Jon Bath, Director of the Digital Research Centre at U Sask, Jim and I exported the statistics from the Commodity Flows database to create spreadsheets, graphs and maps, which we used to help us understand broad patterns and trends in the global trade of leather tanning commodities during the nineteenth century.

One of the tools we used to start to get a sense of the transnational connections of these commodities is, a web-based supply chain mapping service, that allows users to generate maps populated with directional flow information. Using the information from the Commodity Flows database related to where commodities originated as well as their destination, Jim created four maps representing the flow of leather tanning related commodities at different points in the nineteenth century.

This first map shows the flow of leather tanning related commodities into Britain in 1800. Britain imported oak bark from Norway and Germany, shumac from Italy, and hides from all over Europe. This map also shows that oak bark and hides came from North and South America, but since the original source listed everything from across the Atlantic Ocean as originating in “The Americas” these flows are simply an attempt to indicate that both continents were likely involved at this time. What this map should demonstrate is that around 1800 leather tanning in Britain relied on local sources supplemented by Europe and the Atlantic world.

The second map shows commodity flows into Britain during the 1840s. Bark and other tannins continued to enter Britain from Norway and Italy, but it also came in from Australia, North Africa and North America (but not South America). Hides came in from all over Europe, but also South America, South Africa and India. By the 1840s, then, Britain’s leather tanning industries had clearly begun to develop global commodity networks.

The third map includes information for imports and exports of commodities into both Britain and the United States in 1865. The addition of flows into and out of the United States and the addition of re-exports data for Britain adds an extra layer of complexity to the story. Hides still flowed out of places like India, Africa and South America, but this map shows they’re ending up in the United States as well as Britain. A number of different types of tannins also flowed into Britain from places, such as Japan, Australia, the Philippines, India, Turkey, Syria and Egypt. What is clear from this map is that the United States is an important centre of leather manufacture and that the source of leather tanning related commodities had begun to diversify significantly.

The fourth map represents imports and exports for both the United States and Britain in 1895. With few exceptions, the nature of the commodity flows is much the same as it was thirty years earlier. The difference, however, is the diversity in the number of different places that sent both hides and tannins. Materials came in from literally every corner of the globe. Also of particular note is that the United States appears to have developed a distinct sphere of influence over commodity flows from South America. As this map illustrates, the leather industry in Britain and the United States became extensively global.

What the last two source maps do not convey, however, is the degree to which the British and American leather industries became intensively global in scope between 1865 and 1895. The four source maps, taken together, show the spatial component of changes to the global trade of leather tanning commodities, but they do not include information about the scale of these changes.

To get a sense for how the scale of leather tanning commodity flows changed, we exported the data from the Commodity Flows database into spreadsheets and created two simple bar graphs showing the amount by weight of four different classes of hides imported to Britain from the most significant locations around the world.

Imports of hides in Brtiain, 1865, 1895

Immediately apparent is the fact that the total trade increased dramatically, while the number of significant supply locations dropped from six to three. Australia declined in importance, but by less than 1,200 tons in real numbers. The major decline occurs in the number of hides that arrived in Britain from South America. Uruguay sent over 5,200 tons of wet untanned hides in 1865, but less than 400 tons thirty years later. Brazil exported over 8,100 tons to Britain in 1865, and less than 750 tons in 1895. Argentina sent almost 6,000 tons in 1865, but only slightly less than 1,900 tons in 1895. The decline of imports of South American hides to Britain can be partially explained with the 1865 and 1895 source maps above. It is quite evident that South America and its commodity flows came firmly into the United States’ sphere of influence by the end of the nineteenth century and American import statistics confirm this trend.

Indeed, as the 1895 graph illustrates, the United States had become the most important source of foreign tanned leather for Britain. What appears to have happened between the 1860s and 1890s is that the United States leather industry assumed control over untanned hides from South America and, in turn, became a major exporter of tanned hides, particularly to Britain. What also stands out from this graph that is not immediately apparent from the source maps is the major shift in the type of hides coming into Britain from India. In 1865, almost all the hides imported from India were dry untanned. Thirty years later the total quantity of dry untanned hides imported from India had increased by less than 1,500 tons, while the amount of undressed tanned hides rose by more than 17,000 tons. Rather than export untanned hides, India’s domestic leather industry had begun to process hides prior to export to Britain.

With these visualizations, Jim and I were confident that we had a good handle on what the big changes were in the history of the global leather tanning commodity trade during the nineteenth century. The next step will be to use Trading Consequences to help us identify how people were talking about the leather trade and its commodities, how people were thinking about the kinds of trends and changes we were seeing (thanks to these visualizations) in the trade statistics.

And this is how Trading Consequences can be really useful for historians interested in global trade during the nineteenth century. Below is an animated map video of all the mentions of leather tanning related commodities contained in over eight million pages of primary source documents related to the history of the British world during the nineteenth century. By representing spatially the number of times hides and different types of tannins are mentioned in relation to specific places around the world, Jim and I will be able to narrow our focus to the more specific social, economic and environmental components of this history. By following these commodity-location mentions into the primary sources, we can identify important documents to help contextualize what we’ve seen in the numbers.

Trading Consequences Leather Products Data from Jim Clifford on Vimeo.

I would like to thank Jim Clifford for hosting me in Saskatoon for the last two weeks, Geoff Cunfer who provided me the space to work on this project with Jim in the HGIS Lab at the university, the Department of History for hosting my talk on July 30, the university’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Creativity Linking Fellowship for providing the funding for this trip, and Jane Westhouse for taking care of all the arrangements. It’s been a wonderful experience. The research has been funded by a SSHRC Digging Into Data grant and a SSHRC Insight Development Grant.

"Pellegrini Buenos Aires Matadero" by Charles Henri Pellegrini - Monumenta iconografica. Buenos Aires: Emecé editores, 1985.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Impression of a Buenos Aires slaughterhouse by Charles Pellegrini, 1829.

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Andrew Watson

Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Saskatchewan
Andrew is a Postdoctoral Fellow working on the Sustainable Farm Systems project in the Department of History and the Historical GIS Laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan. Andrew is also a collaborator with Jim Clifford and the London's Ghost Acres project. His doctoral research explored the history of sustainability and rural household economies on the Canadian Shield in the Muskoka region of Ontario. His current research includes the environmental and economic history of coal in Canada, sustainable agricultural in Kansas, global leather tanning commodities in the British Empire, and zombies.


  1. Sean Kheraj says:

    Great work on this project, Andrew! I wondered what the secondary literature on the leather industry has to say about this shift in commodity flows. Have other historians found the same thing in regard to the changing position of the United States in the industry? Or have you discovered something that we couldn’t see before?

    Another question came to mind as I read this article. Did the global distribution of domestic animals have any effect on the geography of these commodities flows? Cattle spread across the Canadian, US, and Australian plains in the nineteenth century. This was part of the massive global movement of Europeans that Crosby describes in Ecological Imperialism. Do the changes in commodity flows reflect ecological transformations in Neo-Europes?

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Jim Clifford says:

    Thanks for the comments Sean. The answer to your second question is simply yes. Hides and tallow were important commodities, particularly in the decades before refrigeration, as they could be shipped long distances to markets. But they remain important, even after technologies develop to get the meat to market, as Cronon shows that profits from byproducts helped the Chicago meat packers undersell traditional butchers shops in the eastern US. However, the importance of South Asia and increasing significance of southern Europe is an important reminder that Crosby’s focus on settler colonialism only captures part of the increased commodification of natural resources during this time period.

    The secondary literature on the history of leather is, to my surprise, sparse. It was not one of the central industries of the Industrial Revolution, it did not introduce machinery or chemicals until later in the century and in Britain it declined in relative importance to other industries. As a result, historians have generally focused other topics, leaving a lot for us to cover in an article. We’ll heading to meet with curators at the Bata Shoe museum tomorrow to try and learn more about the shoes and boots produced with much of this leather during the 19th century. Hopefully they’ll point us towards some good material history of leather/shoes/boots.

  3. David Zylberberg says:

    Andrew, Jim and Sean,

    This is an interesting post that nicely illustrates a lot of changes that many of us somewhat understood. It is especially interesting to learn that hides and bark were already being shipped considerable distances in 1800, despite some of the wartime limitations on shipping.
    I would like to follow up on Jim and Sean’s discussion, since I expect that the vast increasing in European hides being produced is part of the broader story of Ecological Imperialism. The large-scale importation of New World (Canada, US, Argentina, Australia) grain to Europe of the 1870s changed European agriculture since many pieces of land were no longer needed to grow grains. The literature I know on this topic focusses on the increasing specialization of wine regions and developments of the Spanish industry but it also led to more land devoted to fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat. One of those effects would be more hides being available to ship at the same time as Britain became the larger destination for it.

    David Zylberberg

  4. Sean Kheraj says:


    You make an interesting point about the potential impact of North American grain production on agriculture in Europe. I hadn’t thought about that.

    Jim and Andrew:

    It sounds like the Trading Consequences project has provided you with evidence to make some important historiographic contributions. Exciting stuff!

  5. Hello all, I know I am a bit late in the game to these comments but I just discovered this posting and am very grateful for it. I am looking at the environmental impact of leather production in nineteenth century New York, specifically the Catskills. My preliminary research indicates that the expansion of reliable transportation routes in the northeast did not necessarily increase the desire for American hides (wet untanned), but instead facilitated the expansion of some tanneries west, especially into Ohio and western Pennsylvania. The important point I think is that the American tanners still preferred the dry untanned hides from South America because they considered them to be better quality. The interesting aspect is that the New York tanneries moved closer to bark supplies, especially hemlock, throughout the nineteenth century, but also remained close to transportation routes so that they could maintain easy access to the imported South American, European, Asian, and African untanned hides.

    I’m curious if you have any sort of bibliography on the industry in the US (or Canada/Britain) in the nineteenth century? I am really struggling to develop an understanding of the historiography of the leather industry. Please contact me if you can.

    Nick Perrone

  6. Andrew Watson says:

    Thanks for the comments Nick,

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. Jim and I will be working on this particular project for a while, so we’d be very interested to talk some more with you.

    It’s interesting that you say American tanners preferred dry untanned hides from South America over American hides. Based on the evidence we’ve seen, the vast majority of hides shipped from South America to Britain were almost all wet untanned. And all indications are that the U.S. diverted the lion’s share of these exports to U.S. markets (before re-exporting them to the U.K. as dressed hides).

    I think your point about transportation routes is a very important one. In my research, the arrival of the railway was a critical factor in the establishment of tanneries in Muskoka, Ontario. As you say, tanneries followed tannins (in your case and mine, hemlock bark) not hides, so good transportation networks were necessary to get hides to tannins and then tanned leather to markets. From what I can see, however, transportation routes usually proceed tanning operations, rather than being the initial impetus for them.

    Jim and I have been pulling together a variety of resources on the history of the leather tanning industry in North America during the nineteenth century. I will email you a list of them.

    • Andrew,

      Thanks for getting back to me. It’s early days for me on this project so I’m still familiarizing myself with some of the methods and terminology. Right now I am focusing on some of the major players in New York (Zadock Pratt, Gideon Lee). I am also trying to locate the shift toward finance capitalism in the industry, and the effect that shift has on production and consumption for both foreign and domestic markets.

      I think you’re right about transportation preceding the tanning operations. I haven’t found any evidence of transportation routes planned specifically to accommodate tanneries, maybe with the exception of Prattsville, New York (still not sure though).

      I really appreciate the email, and I will hopefully be able to add to the list for your benefit as well. Thanks for the good work and hopefully we can chat soon and possibly collaborate in the future.

  7. Ben Bradley says:

    i googled “19th century chains and leather” to find this story, but was directed to some radically different items…

  8. very interesting post on the manufacturing industry of leather, and the story changes a bit if applied to the twentieth century as it begins to take more strength in the manufacture of leather European countries like Spain.

  9. Geoff Read says:

    Jim and others:

    Very interesting work and the maps are a good way to lay the data out. I wonder how much your maps and picture might change if you looked at other centres of production besides the US and UK? Granted, this would require the collection of (even more) data – but I would guess tanning was going on in Germany, France, Spain, and beyond Europe, China. It would be really interesting to see a commodity flows map with China as the production centre. Just a thought. Keep up the great work.

  10. Jim says:

    Thanks Geoff. We can see this a little bit by looking at trade between Britain and other European centres. A lot of global materials are transshipped via London and Liverpool and end up in Germany in particular, while the Germans send a lot of tanned leader back to the UK. Going beyond this would require a partnership with other historians with access to other archival collections. We’re planning to make the database open, so that others can both use the data we’ve collected and add their own trade statistics (related to the leather trade or any other commodity). Andrew organized a panel proposal for the ESEH with a Portuguese and American historian, which might provide the opportunity to find a group of people interested in expanding our British world data to include other major leather producing centres.

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