Most people are aware of the roles tobacco and other agricultural crops played in Maryland’s history. But I would wager that not nearly as many Marylanders know that the tanning of leather was second only to agriculture in economic importance in some parts of the state during the 18th and 19th centuries. In honor of that key role, I have chosen a tool used in the tanning industry as the starting point for this week’s blog on a trade that has all but disappeared from Maryland’s economy.
This iron fleshing knife, recovered during archaeological excavations at Birely Tannery, was used in thinning animal hides and to remove all traces of tissue before the tanning process began. The Birely Tannery (18FR575), in operation from the turn of the nineteenth century until the early 1950s, was one of the longest-lived tanneries in the City of Frederick. Extensive archaeological excavations conducted in 1988 revealed the remains of four tannery structures (a bark mill, a hide house, a lime house, and a beam house), 24 tanning vats, a cobble road and large leather/hair dump (Thomas et al. 1991:I-23). The two foot long fleshing knife was one of several similar knives found at the site.
In the Middle Atlantic, the tanning industry was at its heyday in the nineteenth century, with small and large-scale tanneries found both in cities and in rural areas. Tanneries in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Maryland tended to cluster in areas—like the Catskill Mountains in New York—with an abundance of the hemlock or oak trees whose bark was crucial for the tanning process. In Maryland, a number of tanneries were located in Frederick County. The 1810 U.S. census documented 47 tanneries in the county, with eight located in the city of Frederick. The Gazetteer of Manufacturers & Manufacturing Towns of the United States, published in 1866, showed that almost half of the 93 tanneries located in Maryland were in Frederick County (Bradstreet 1866).
The development of Frederick and Frederick County as a center for the tanning industry was due to natural, cultural and economic factors that combined to create the right conditions for this industry (Thomas et al. 1991:III-31). Nearby limestone deposits were a ready source of lime for the tanning process and large oak forests supplied tannic acid. The German settlers in the region had a long-standing tradition of dairy farming which provided animal skins, and the presence of good transportation systems in the county insured leather produced at the tannery could make its way to markets back east.
Birely Tannery was located on the eastern edge of the town, an area chosen both for its ready access to the waters of Carroll Creek and because it was downwind of the town’s residential neighborhoods (Thomas et al. 1991:I-11). Tanning was an exceedingly odoriferous process involving cleaning and soaking of the raw hides, scraping and de-hairing, soaking in tannin solutions to cure the hides and final drying, shaping and oiling of the cured hides. The entire process could take six to nine months, and generated large quantities of smelly wastewater, grease, scrap leather and hair.
The 1850 Census listed the company as producing 2,400 sides of tanned leather, valued at $7,450 (1850 Census). Analysis of the faunal remains from the site showed that the majority of the Birely Tannery’s production was calf skin leather, a specialty product requiring a great deal of hand labor. Among the items produced by the Birely Tannery were shoes, gloves, carriage accessories, saddles and other equestrian equipment (Lynch 2012). The Birely family expanded the business throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, converting from water to steam power.
Starting in the early twentieth century, changing technologies brought about a precipitous decline in the tanning industry. As automobiles replaced horses and horse-drawn vehicles, the need for saddles and harnesses plummeted. Synthetic materials, such as plastics and rubber, replaced leather in numerous manufactured goods. In addition to a falling demand for leather, the early twentieth century was not so kind to the Birely Tannery in other ways. A fire in July of 1909 caused significant damage to the plant, which was rebuilt within a matter of months. The company survived by changing with the times; after rebuilding, the Birely Tannery continued to cure leather, but began to focus more of its energy towards selling leather and shoe findings (Thomas et al. 1991:I-23).
Birely Tannery’s last remaining structure, a two story building on a stone foundation, has recently been listed by the Frederick Preservation Trust as one of Frederick County’s most endangered properties (Eppard 2013). The site is being scouted as a location for a hotel and conference center. To learn more about this building and other endangered structures in the county, visit http://www.frederickpreservationtrust.com/10%20Endangered%20Sites.pdf.
Bradstreet, J. M.
1866 Gazetteer of Manufacturers and Manufacturing Towns of the United States. J. M. Bradstreet, New York.
2013 Preservation Group Designates Frederick’s Ten Most-Endangered Historic Sites. Frederick Magazine. Volume XXVII, No. 1, pp. 57-67.
2012 Birely Tannery 1760 – 1960, Carroll Creek in Frederick. The Frederick Citizen, October 15, 2012. http://www.frederickcitizen.com/today101512.html. Website accessed
Thomas, Ronald A., Kenneth Baumgardt, Merle Dunn and Robert F. Hoffman
1991 Phase III Data Recovery at the Birely Tannery (18FR575), City of Frederick, Maryland. Unpublished report prepared by MAAR Associates, Newark, Delaware and on file at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, St. Leonard, Maryland.
United States Department of the Interior
1850 Seventh Census of the United States.