Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Well shod? Tanning agents and leather

When supplies dried up soon after the start of the war, the former reliance on some unremarkable raw materials from far-off lands became clear. Among them were quebracho wood from Argentina, which had lots of tannin and was used for tanning leather, and wax from the carnauba palm in Brazil, which was used to care for leather.

The old craft of tanning was not as susceptible to industrialisation as other sectors. Home-grown materials like spruce and oak bark or acorn cups were used as tanning agents. The tanning of thick animal hides in pits took up to three years. It was not until the early twentieth century that rapid tanning spread from western Europe. Now increasingly concentrated natural substances with exotic names started arriving in Austria: mangrove bark from Madagascar, mimosa bark from South Africa, divi-divi from Mexico and, above all, tannin-rich quebracho from Argentina. This was processed into tannin extract in Austria, the largest company being H. & M. Oesinger in Roztok [Roztoky] north of Prague. Other quebracho-processing factories were located conveniently on the Austrian Adriatic coast. With the loss of overseas deliveries, local tanning agents had to be used again. Experts at the Leather Industry Research Institute in Vienna experimented with oak and chestnut, various barks, spruce cones and tree fruits. They also took a critical look at substitute tanning agents mixed with cheap substances and waste products like molasses or wood pulp lye.

Leather was a strong and durable material and played an important role in the war, notably for army shoes and boots, harnesses and belts. At the start of the war there was plenty of leather available: large numbers of cattle were slaughtered and many horses were killed under fearful conditions in the war. By 1915, however, soles and uppers for shoes and other types of leather for military purposes were required. The civilian population suffered thereafter from a shortage particularly of materials for soles, which were made increasingly of leather waste, wood or felt. Leather drive belts for machine transmissions were also replaced by paper and wire mesh belts.

In view of the deteriorating quality of the products, leather and shoe care became more important. Wax from the Brazilian carnauba palm was a favourite substance. In 1913 Austria-Hungary had imported 2,639 hundredweights of raw and processed carnauba wax. Among the largest users was the shoe cream manufacturer Stefan Fernolendt in Vienna. Untreated lignite wax from the domestic lignite in Bohemia was used as a substitute. In this sector as well a number of manufacturers marketed inferior-quality products, which were styled as “synthetic shoe cream”, “glycerine substitute” or “diluted fish oil”. As in many other cases, these surrogates did not live up to their promise.

Translation: Nick Somers


Der Außenhandel der öst.-ung. Monarchie im Jahre 1913, in: Österreichische Chemiker-Zeitung, Neue Folge 17 (1914), 75–79

Kohnstein, Bernhard: Über die Folgeerscheinungen des Krieges auf die Lederindustrie und die Vorkehrungen des technischen Versuchswesens, in: Mitteilungen des k. k. Technischen Versuchsamtes 4/4 (1915), 30–39

Weitensfelder, Hubert: „Kriegsware“. Ersatzstoffe in Produktion und Alltag, in: Pfoser, Alfred/Weigl, Andreas (Hrsg.): Im Epizentrum des Zusammenbruchs. Wien im Ersten Weltkrieg, Wien 2013, 172–179

Contents related to this chapter


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Shortages and poverty

    When the population reacted to shortages of bread and flour in January 1915with panic buying, the Kriegs-Getreide-Vekehrsanstalt [Wartime Grain Trade Department] introduced ration cards. Individual quotas were determined and handed out on presentation of bread and flour ration cards. But even the allocated rations became more and more difficult to supply, and the cards became worthless.


  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?