History Blog

History Blog: Italian Renaissance - Where have all the copperplate engravers gone?

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The other day I found a fascinating book at the library. The book is called "Falkner, Köhler, Kupferstecher: Ein Kompendium der untergegangenen Berufe." (Falconers, Coal makers, Copperplate engravers: A compendium of professions that have disappeared). I've yet to find a better glimpse into the daily life of past societies than what you get through reading descriptions of jobs that no longer exist.

Reading about lost professions has made me think more indepth about how the things we take for granted in our daily lives are manufactured. If I want a pair of shoes, I go to the store and buy a pair. I never give much thought to where or how they were made. I assume it was in a factory somewhere. Yet if you look a few hundred years in the past and take that same pair of shoes, you know right off that they were hand made. People, craftsmen put those shoes together. But as I've learned in my reading, a long line of workers did their small parts to contribute to one simple pair of shoes. How did it work?

Let's say the end result will be a pair of soft leather shoes with laces. The shoe maker won't come into the equation until after we get the leather. Seems simple enough, but it was really a complex process. A tanner needed a fresh animal hide, let's say of a calf, from a butcher or a hunter. The tanner would work with the hide immediately or preserve it in table salt. The hide was first cleaned and softened in clear water, sometimes for several days in a river. Then the hide would be taken to the work table and the leather worker would cut free any remaining flesh or fat. Next the hair had to be taken off the hide. A popular method was letting the hide sweat in a moist, warm chamber. As the hide rotted, the hair would come off. Another method was to take the hide to a chalk worker, who smeared it with a chalk mixture, left it for days and eventually scrubbed away or cut the hair.

If the tanner went the chalk direction, he'd have a smelly bit of work ahead of him. To clean off the remaining chalk, hair and fat, he soaked the hide in dog, chicken or pidgeon excrement. Believe it or not, this awful concoction was not replaced by a synthetic mixture until the beginning of the 20th century! Then would come several months of curing the hide in a brew of the mineral alum, and various other tanning processes that could take weeks to years depending on the type and thickness of the leather. After spreading the leather on frames to take in the air, the leather was again washed and set to air dry. Then the tanners shaped it using hammers, knives and other tools which helped give the leather a finish. The tanner or another specialist cut the leather.

At last, the shoemaker could do his work. So up until a hundred years ago, the making of a simple pair of shoes required a hunter or farmer, a butcher, a tanner, a chalk worker and a shoemaker. And that's without the shoe laces!