Friday, February 10, 2012

Milwaukee Tanneries 1901 - 2001

As this poster from 1901 illustrates, Milwaukee Feeds and Supplies the World.

Poster Promoting Milwaukee which "Feeds and Supplies the World" - 1901

This was true for many companies, including the tanning industry. Milwaukee was an area that was settled by many German immigrants and with them they brought their passions and knowledge of the tanning business. Being so very close to the huge stock yards in Chicago gave the Milwaukee tanners an ability to have a constant source of raw materials. The hides from Chicago would be shipped by train to Milwaukee and the process of breathing a new life back into these hides would begin. A large labor force was needed to complete the job of turning what was a raw piece of flesh into something that could be used not only in industrial and farm application but in everyday use by the average person. There was not a lot of science to tanning at first so the tanners had to use all their senses to create a beautiful piece of leather. Hides were soaked in putrid smelling vats of urine, lime and dung to rid them of hair and to stop the natural bacteria from rotting the hides. The "head" tanner had to have a "nose" for the condition of the "bath" these hides had to travel through so as not to burn or destroy the hides. This lower end tanning used to preserve the hides was often referred to as "bottom tanning". Once the hides had been neutralized, the hair was scraped off, the hides were cut in half along the animals backbone and the fat and webbing on the undersides were removed.

Two Hardworking Tannery Workers

Depending on what the hide final use would be, the tanning process was followed various steps as the hide made it's way through the tannery. Huge wooden vats were used for soaking and washing the hides. These vats would rotate and agitate the hides so they would accept the compounds of chemicals needed to be infused into the leather. These vats would be filled from the top via one floor and emptied on the bottom from another floor. It was vey messy, heavy and dangerous work. Following a specific flow chart through the tannery, the hides would go through coloring, finishing and plating. Basic colors would be drummed into the hides and a finish or top coat would be used. A plating machine is like a big hot iron press with either a smooth plate or a textured plate that was used to simulate an animals grain. The sequence for tanning leather is long and arduous but at the end the leather would have a beauty and durable quality that is unequaled to this day.

For more then 100 years, Milwaukee was known for it's vast tanning industry. The size of these tanneries ranged from small to very large. Niche tanners, such as W.B. Place made their mark with specializing in tanning deer skin as well as cowhide. A tanner like General Split just used the part of the cowhide that came from the leather that was split off the very thick hides. Huge tanneries like Pfister & Vogel employed thousands of people at various locations across Milwaukee. A.F. Gallun Tannery used just calfskin in their operation. A.L. Gebhardt Company was a leader in many different types of leather needed for the shoe, garment and upholstery business. The list of Milwaukee tanneries is very long and most are no longer in business in Milwaukee.

When I started out in the leather business in 1968, I literally could walk from my Leather Shop at 1316 E. Brady Street to three large tanners. If I couldn't find what I needed at these three, all I had to do is drive a short distance and more then a dozen tanners were open for business. Along with the plethora of tanners, Milwaukee had a very vibrant manufacturing trade that was associated with all things leather. There were many companies that made the machines used in the tanning industry plus companies that made the machines needed to produce finished leather goods for consumers. There was a large presence of shoe makers, wallet makers, luggage and handbag makers. One of the very close tanners near me was Western Leather Products Corporation. This combination tannery and manufacturer was formed in 1910 by the Pfister & Vogel Company just to process the scrap that P&V generated form their tannery. Western Leather would put the small pieces of scrap leather together to make leather heels, toe caps and counters for the shoe industry. Back in the 1950's, when transistor radios were first introduced. Western Leather made the millions of leather cases that came with each radio.

It would have been hard to imagine in 1968 that this leather presence in Milwaukee would fade away.
With each year passing, the tanners survived by innovations of new machines and refined techniques in the now science of tanning. Instead of using more natural ingredients in this process such as extracts from trees and vegetables, the tanners turned to science. The bottom tanning process evolved from putrid baths to scientific alkaline and acid baths to ensure a more uniform tan. The oils needed to lubricate the leather became more synthetic and the sprayed on finish to the hides became more durable. What was once an old world way of making finished leather by many individuals was fast becoming a modern and mechanized industry. The labor force now needed to produce the leather was minimal but the new chemicals used were environmentally unfriendly. The tanners had to refit all their procedures to reduce the effluent being discharged back into the environment. The newly formed government agency, The Environmental Protection Agency mandated to the industry to clean up their act.  All this cost huge sums of money and with any business, the bottom line has to be considered. By 2001, the majority of tanners either closed up because of declining profits or moved their operation overseas to avoid the additional charge from the EPA regulations.

The bottom line is this: It is more profitable to tan leather off shore. The hides can be salted down to preserve them as container ships carry them to distant shores were the machines and labor needed will be there. These hosting countries will allow more pollution to be emitted then the EPA here would allow, so the bottom line of profit is increased. I've heard that some large tanning conglomerates actually ship the salted raw hides to the west coast where they are loaded on big ocean going ships. Once onboard, the hides are bottom tanned and the effluent is thrown in the ocean. Arriving at it's destination, the hides can be further finished and most times, used by manufactures there to cut, sew and assemble the leather item finished goods that are shipped back to us here in the USA.

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