Leather at Cambridge Things

Leather at Cambridge Things

Written by Philip Warner.

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A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in a seminar at Cambridge University as part of their Imaginative Things: Curious Objects 1400-2000 series. Things seminars have been investigating the connection between material culture and the mind. Objects are explored for their functionality and for their eccentricity. A friend of the museum, Tom Rusbridge, and I were co-presenting on the theme of leather. Tom is writing his PhD on the material culture of leather, looking at several different categories of object. For the purposes of the seminar we were looking at drinking vessels.

Costrels, Bombards, Blackjacks and Tankards adorned the table.

We (England that is) have always had a curious preference for leather items when it comes to our beer and drink. The debate as to why still rumbles on. Various parties suggest it is connected to the availability of raw materials on our fair isle, and our relatively naive abilities with ceramic and glassware up until the eighteenth century. Whilst pewter, silver and other metals were indeed used for such vessels, they were (in comparison to leather) expensive and often heavier.

Throughout the middle ages and right up until the early eighteenth century, leather vessels seem to have been the popular choice in England. On the continent too leather was put to this use, but there is a noticeable difference. In Europe and the middle East, skins of goat and sheep were treated to form lightweight, pliable containers; wineskins for example. In England we worked tough, moulded vessels from thick pieces of ox and cow hide. Two or three pieces of leather stitched together with waxed linen threads. Lined for waterproofing with pitch made from the sap of pine trees, or from beeswax. Hardy and yet lightweight. Leather vessels were the affordable, utilitarian solution for every day agrarian life.

Excepts from ‘A song in praise of the leather bottel’
Wade, John, fl. 1660-1680.

Shewing how Glasses and Pots are laid aside,
And Flaggons, and Noggins they can’t abide:
And let all Wives do what they can,
‘Tis for the Praise and Use of Man:
And this you may very well be sure,
The Leather-Bottle will longest endure,
And I wish in Heaven his Soul may dwell,
That first devised the Leather-Bottel.

Then what do you say to these Cans of wood,
In Faith they are, and cannot be good ;
For when a Man he doth them send
To be fill’d with Ale, as he doth intend ;
The bearer falleth down by the Way,
And on the Ground the Liquor doth lay,
And then the bearer begins to ban,
And swears it is long of the wooden Can,
But had it been in the Leather-Bottel,
Although he had fallen, yet all had been well,

A Leather-Bottle we know is good,
For better than Glasses or Cans of Wood,
For when a Man is at work in the field
Your Glasses and pots no Comfort will yield,
Then a good Leather Bottle standing him by,
He may drink always when he is a Dry:
It will revive the Spirits and Comfort the brain
Wherefore let none this Bottle refrain:

Also the honest Sythe Man to,
He know not very well what to do,
But for his Bottle standing him near,
That is fill’d with good Household Beer,

And likewise the Hay-makers they,
When as they are turning and making of Hay
In Summer weather, when as it is warm,
A good Bottle full will do them no harm.
And at Noon time they sit them down,
To Drink in their Bottles of Ale nut brown
Then tho Lads and the Lasses begins to tattle,
What should we do but for this Bottle?
They could not work if this Bottle were out
For the Day’s so hot with the heat of the Sun

Thus you may hear of a Leather Bottel,
When it is filled with Liquor full,
Though the substance be but small,
Yet the Name of the thing is all,
There’s never a Lord, Earl or Knight,
but in a bottle doth take delight;
For when he is a Hunting of the Deer,
He often doth wish for a bottle of beer;
Likewise the Man that works at the Wood,
A bottle of beer doth oft do him good,

Then when this bottle doth grow old,
And will good Liquor no longer hold,
Out of the side you may take a Clout,
Will mend your Shoes when there are worn out
Else take and hang it on a pin,
It will serve to put odd trifles in,
As Hinges, Awls and Candle ends,
For young beginners must have such things …

At the end of the seminar there was a chance to view the objects up close. The discussions were lively and thought provoking. They served as a reminder of how much more research and analysis of our items are due. This by no means fills me with fear, far from it, in fact!

After a mug of fine ale I puff my chest out and continue on the road to re-uniting the treasures and stories contained in the National Leather Collection with the public once more.

For those of you that were unable to attend Cambridge Things, Tom has kindly agreed to give his paper on the culture of leather drinking vessels at an upcoming event in November. The 2017 Being Human Festival is a celebration of the humanities, and features events from all around the country. Our lecture series, ‘Leather at Lunchtime’ will run from the 21st – 23rd November, 12-2pm. For more details see the poster below …

This is just one example of the work that we do here at the National Leather Collection! To learn more about the collection, visit our homepage. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.