In the past, animal skins were processed to provide essentials such as shelter, clothing and footwear. Today, they often are produced as luxury items.
Evidently, cavemen utilized animal skins. Paleolithic cave paintings display figures clothed with furs and skins. Excavated tools, some made of wood and flint, ostensibly were used to prepare skins.
Leather production evolved. Egyptian artifacts in tombs and wall paintings dating back 5,000 B.C. indicate leather was used for apparel and military equipment. The Romans produced flexible leather for gladiator sandals and tough leather for protective armor. Native Americans relied on bison hides for the coverings of teepees and rawhide (leather that is not tanned) for parfleche containers.
In the leather industry, hides refer to larger animals; skins refer to smaller animals, cowhide and snakeskin. After preparation, tanning occurs to ensure durability and reduce susceptibility to decomposition.
Traditional vegetable tanning, still employed by dedicated master tanners, involves tannins from tree barks, which gave tanning its name. Also applied are various agents, such as roots, leaves and smoke. Now, industrial tanneries use chemicals that are detrimental to the environment.
Cowhide, one of the heaviest of leathers, is common and inexpensive. It is suitable for shoes, jackets, furniture and car upholstery. A substantial amount of leather is recycled from the waste hides of animals raised for meat and dairy. Horsehide is common for the jackets and chaps of motorcyclists, and it is the source of high-end cordovan shoes.
The fashion industry promotes leather goods from exotic animals, including alligators, crocodiles, eels, elephants, kangaroos and sharks. Cowboy boots are splendid in python or rattlesnake skins.
Some of these exotic animals are farmed. Fur pelts are derived from animals such as chinchillas and minks. Sadly, they are farmed in cages. Another issue is the poaching of precious wild animals for their furs, like the snow leopard and Bengal tiger.
Animal welfare policies vary. Austria ranks high in protecting animals. In the United States, animal protection is inadequate and lacks accountability and transparency.