By Bonnie Fordham Hollingsworth
The art of tanning hides is all but lost in our modern society. It was part of life in the country many years ago. I am one of those who have continued with some of the old ways, including tanning hides.
I always helped Daddy with the tanning and stretching when I was growing up. Money was in short supply, so we did what we had to do to survive and have what we needed.
Venison was one of our meat sources, and the deer hides were used mostly for chairs. If a hide was not suitable for chairs, it was used for shoe laces and/or repairing shoes. Also, when Daddy needed a gasket for something, the deer hide did a fine job, along with a little axle grease rubbed on it.
There was the occasional bear hide, but Mama did not find any use for a bear hide. She said they had an odor that she could not abide. Daddy and me would still tan them, and we could sell the hide to a merchant for five dollars if it was a good hide. That was big money, and Daddy would always give me a whole dollar if he sold a bear hide that I had helped tan.
The best hides were the ones that were tanned with the hair on them. For this, though, one had to have alum and salt petre, and we did not always have these two things available. We would draw a fresh tub of water from the well, stir the alum and salt petre into the water, and soak the hide for at least 24 hours. This mixture would set the hair and the hide would not shed after it was cured out.
The most time-consuming part of preparing a hide was the scraping. The hide was stretched and tacked, and it began. The entire fatty layer just beneath the hide had to be scraped off good. If not, the hide would turn rank and the flies and bugs would destroy it. Whether or not it was treated with the alum and salt petre, there was no shortcutting this part of hide tanning. It was a tedious process, and one had to take care not to cut through the hide. A deep cut would weaken the hide.
The one above was treated with alum and salt petre, and is doing beautifully. I also left the paws on this one, just to see how they would come out. One of the paws has now lost two claws. POOP!
I had not finished scraping this one when the picture was taken. Here is one of the paws.
Cowhides were never tanned with the hair on them. Sometimes we wouldnt soak the cowhides; just stretch them and scrape them. Most of the cowhides were used to make belts, so one hide would go a long way. The others were sold, but only brought two dollars each. To cure out a cowhide faster, after it was stretched, we rubbed borax into it. After it was finished, the cowhide was turned over, re-tacked, and the hair would easily come off by rubbing the hide with a rough stone.
The one hide, or skin that I did not want to help with or even touch, was the rattlesnake hide. Daddy would skin them out, lay them flat, rub them good with pickling salt, and roll them up. They stayed rolled up for a couple of days, and this drew out any body fluids from the skin. Then they were unrolled and stretched and tacked, but the salt was not washed off. When the skin was dried good, the salt would brush off quite easily. This was another skin that my mother wanted nothing to do with. Daddy would make hatbands out of them, or just sell them. If nothing else, he would just leave them tacked up somewhere for a conversation piece. He LOVED telling where he found the snake and how he killed it. He also saved the rattles from every rattler he ever killed. Mama would NOT let Daddy tack a snakeskin on the side of the barn. She firmly believed it would spook the cows and make them stop giving milk.
Oddly enough, Mama wanted every rabbit skin saved, and she herself would do the cleaning, trimming, and cutting of it. She treated a rabbit skin like it was a priceless possession. It took her almost 4 years to save her precious rabbit skins for what she had in mind; a quilt! She did, indeed, finally make a rabbit skin quilt. It was a beautiful thing! She almost gave up her dream of the quilt when she discovered that her treadle sewing machine would not sew the hides. It was too thick, and would break the needle. Needles were one of the things you had to BUY, and therefore could not be abused. That entire quilt was sewn by hand. I wanted it badly, but, it was put up for COMPANY, and we actually got very little use from it.
Mama had a cousin that spent the night one time, who worked for a wealthy lady in town. She was telling her employer about Mamas quilt, and the lady drove out one day to see it. She was TOTALLY smitten with the quilt, and offered Mama fifty dollars for it. Mama refused to sell it. She then offered one hundred dollars for it, and Mama still refused to sell it. When the lady left, Daddy asked Mama where her mind had gone, and Mama was huffy for several days after that. She loved that quilt, and it had taken her four years to save the hides and another 6 months to sew the quilt in whatever free time she could find. I failed to understand it, as we didn’t use the quilt anyway, but ............... it was Mamas, and it was her choice to make.
Many years would pass before Mama parted with that quilt. It went to a doctor in town who had operated on my oldest brother. Mama told Daddy that she had settled the bill, but she also had some money to spend for a change. I think she died without any of us ever knowing how much she got, or what deal she made with the doctor.
When the hides had thoroughly dried and cured, Neatsfoot Oil was rubbed into them to soften them. This was done several times over the course of two weeks or more. It depended on the individual hide. This was done with both deer hides and cowhides, to make them supple enough to work with. When we got through with a hide, you could easily stretch it over the seat support of a chair. Both my dad and I took pride in our hides. When we were little, Daddy made each of us a little drum from a hollowed out small log with a piece of deerskin stretched over it.
The poor farmer back in those days, almost always had hides curing somewhere. I am no longer a poor farmer, but I just happen to have a bear hide curing out on the outside wall of my basement. The bear roast was pretty good, too!