Home / Leather / Ancient Leather: 7 Unusual Ways Our Ancestors Used Leather

Ancient Leather: 7 Unusual Ways Our Ancestors Used Leather

Ancient Leather - Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum leather wallpaper

You’re probably aware that leather has been around for thousands of years. What you may not know is that human ingenuity has found some surprising uses for this “ancient leather” – some of which borderline on bizarre by our modern standards.

Maybe it’s easy for us nowadays to take for granted the diversity of materials at our disposal. But our ancient ancestors didn’t have that luxury. Resources were limited and modern technology for things like plastic and mass production was a long way off, and so the only thing to do was maximize the natural resources around them.

To that end, people of the past figured out ways to manipulate and craft leather to suit some truly unexpected applications.

What sort of applications? Read on.


#1: Boat Sails

Seafaring Celtic tribes of the first century were world renowned for their massive ships, and these vessels required sails of extraordinary durability. So to help them navigate the harsh conditions of the Atlantic ocean, these tribes fashioned their sails out of leather.

Unfortunately, this did not prevent the Celtics from being conquered by the Romans under Julius Caesar. No small feat for the Romans.


#2: Wallpaper

With the advent of wallpaper around the middle of the seventeenth century, gilded leather began to adorn the homes of the Europe’s wealthiest.

At that time, Spain was considered the go-to source for the highest-quality leather on the continent. Craftsmen would enhance the leather material with elaborative decor in the form of embossing and even gold paint.

As one admiring (or disgruntled) French reporter wrote in 1762, “It must be admitted…that certain gilt leather hangings from England and Venice have never been equalled here [in France]. We are forced to allow their superiority in brilliance, beauty of design and durability.”


#3: Golf Balls

Believe it or not, the first golf balls (made in the Netherlands, around the mid 1400s) were made of leather. Originally, golf ball makers stuffed hard leather with cow hair. Later, they upgraded to the feathers of chickens or geese.

They also painted the leather white to make stray balls easier to find – and for good reason. Because each one took so long to make, a single leather golf ball could cost a golfer up to the equivalent of 20 USD per ball.


#4: Church Doors

In the eleventh century, cathedral doors across Europe were covered with leather and overlaid with decorative metalwork. Spanish leather was gaining popularity all over Europe, and with leather’s brilliant colour and durability. Not to mention, a universally recognized symbol of power and wealth. But what made it especially practical for outdoor use was its natural resistance to damp.


#5: Drinking Glasses

Leather might have been the symbol of status and luxury, but it was also an everyman’s material. Leather has been used to make drinking vessels since Neolithic times, but in Tudor England, it seemed like every pub in England was filled with leather mugs.

These oddly-shaped vessels became known as bombards. In the days before plastic, leather was a light yet durable material that didn’t crack, chip or shatter like glass – in other words, perfect for the rowdy pub atmosphere.


#6: Plumbing

The ancient Phoenicians lived along the east end of the Mediterranean, including an island off the coast of modern-day Syria.

If an enemy were to invade the wrong side of the mainland coast, the entire island could lose access to its fresh water supply. The Phoenicians needed to engineer an alternate water supplier.

Their solution was to build an underground spring that drew water from the strait through leather hoses. These leather pipes excluded salt water so that only fresh water would end up in the island spring.


#7: Floatation Devices

It seems leather and water go well together. When the Assyrians needed floatation devices for their ships, they used animal bladders and inflatable leather rafts. These ancient water safety devices from 3,000 B.C. came in handy during capsizes and foul weather at sea.

And there you have it. Hopefully you came away with some new facts about leather and the seemingly endless possibilities it holds for creative problem-solvers.

Did any of them surprise you? You can leave a comment below.

Steve Manchee
Steve is the Founder, President and Owner of Blackstock Leather Inc. Blackstock is well known for their high quality leather solutions for architectural and interior designs. Blackstock specializes in leather FLOOR and WALL tiles, and have solid partnerships with high quality tanneries. Steve has 50+ years experience working with leather & delights in sharing his knowledge freely with Interior Designers and Architects, making their life easier and less complicated when it comes to leather designs and architectural concepts. Steve is also the inventor and creator of the "Magnetic Leather Floor" and "Magnetic Wall Tiles".