Colors and Dying of Leather Breeches.
By Paul Dickfoss, 3rd New York Reg’t
The book Leather Breeches in Colonial Virginia (Howard, 1996) reports that leather
breeches were usually left natural, buff white or tan in color but were also sometimes
dyed. He goes on to say black was the most common color for leather breeches. The
question I attempt to answer in this paper is what other colors were leather breeches
By searching the Pennsylvania Gazette (Accessible Archives Search and Information Server Primary Source Material from Early American Periodicals) I was able to find a variety of colors. A search of simply “leather breeches” had to be narrowed to a specific color or description otherwise the maximum amount of hits (300) would be returned. The abundance of leather breeches is not surprising since 57% of all the breeches found in inventories in Cumberland County, PA were either described as buckskin or leather (Hersh, 1995, p. 112). Although buckskin is the name of a cloth (Montgomery, 1984, p. 181) as well as that of a tanned deer skin, it is highly unlikely the buckskin breeches were of a fabric since none of the stores in Cumberland County list buckskin cloth (Hersh, 1995). Furthermore, it was common to refer to leather breeches as buckskin breeches one example is from a thief’s confession in The Pennsylvania Gazette, December 21, 1738 who says,”…and stole there from a Breeches-maker three Buckskins….” If this was fabric it would have been stolen from a tailor not a breeches maker.
It is important to remember that “leather breeches” was the most common description with well over 300 hits for the time period that could be searched, from 1728-1800. The second most common was “black leather breeches” with 36 hits and finally “dirty leather breeches” with 20 hits. Any other color or description found is reported below. Leather breeches were probably dyed black as a way of hiding the natural stains that eventually make them quiet unsightly (a first hand account of really disgusting leather breeches may be gotten from Fred Dickfoss of the 3rd New York Regiment). Breeches could be brought to a dyer to have them occasionally re-blacked (Howard, 1996).
In the London Museum a pair of breeches is kept (Halls, 1973) and described as “late 18th century; yellow leather (buckskin); the center back waist fastens with a buckle and strap over a center gusset, and the front with a falling flap; there are six steel buttons at the knees, and a leather thong fastening; there is a little embroidery in blue cotton on the front flap and at the knee edge.” This pair of breeches were probably worn by a wealthy fashionable man since the other garments in the book are of the finest quality. The yellow here, and in the chart (see p 12), may simply refer to the color of the tanned leather and not to a dyed leather, although leather can be dyed yellow. The embroidery testifies to the very fine nature of this leather.
Dyeing Leather Breeches
One advertisement for dyeing leather breeches was found.
May 15, 1755 The Pennsylvania Gazette
SARAH BROWN, At the house where Michael Brown formerly lived, in Sassafras street, commonly call Race street, between Second and Front streets, STILL continues in the business of SILK DYING; where any
person may have all sorts of silks, &c. dyed in any colour, tabbies water, worsted stuffs dyed or dressed, silk stockings and gloves dyed, leather breeches and skins dyed, camblet cloaks dyed and dressed, mens clothes dry or wet scower, spots taken out of stuffs damaged at sea, linen yarn dyed blue, &c.
N.B. As said Sarah Brown having a Cullender, and the most convenient tools for that business, required in America, she engages her work to be done as neat as in London.
Leather may be dyed yellow using either fustic or quercitron which are both natural dyes obtained from trees. Fustic is a natural yellow dye extracted from yellow Brazil wood, Morus tinctoria. Quercitron a tannin, and yellow coloring material is obtained from the bark of the black oak, Quercus velutina, and was used to a very limited extent in both tanning and dyeing leather (Labarre, 1952). A pale tanish yellow leather may also be obtained from rubbing linseed oil into leather.
Red leather dye may be obtained from either algarobilla or Brazil wood. Algarobilla, comes from the dry pods of a shrub native to Chile, Caesalpinia brevifolia. Algarobilla gives a light-colored tan liquor which before fermentation colors leather slightly to a light reddish yellow. If fermentation is allowed to occur it produces a very bright color but is usually blended with other tannins (Howes, 1953). Brazil wood, the heavy wood of any of the tropical trees in the family Leguminosae, produces a red, water-soluble dye called brazilin which was used to produce coloring materials used in dyeing leather. Red leather was much more commonly used to make pocketbooks and trunks which are both commonly advertised for sale in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Black, purple to violet leather dyes may be gotton from an aqueous extract obtained from the heartwood of the logwood tree, Haematoxylon campechisnum, of Central America and the West Indies. It was taken to Europe soon after the discovery of America, and was one of the most important of the natural coloring matters until the 19th century, when it was superseded by synthetic dyestuffs of greater brilliance but is still used in dyeing leather and textiles black today (Mayer, 1969).
White leather was not dyed but tanned by the process of mossing. This process of finishing the flesh side of leather with a mixture of (Irish) carragheen moss and French chalk leaves the surface smooth and white (U.S. Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1952).