Russian Reindeer Hide: Intact and Unused

Jonathan Prown

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The 10th inst: arrives the Christian from Rotterdam with wheat and cheese for Barcelona. In the night about 10 o’clock in a violent gale of wind from the south-west she drove on shore at Deadman’s Bay in Cattewater and it is to be much feared that the vessel and cargo will be lost. The crew all sound. Same night was drove on shore on Drake’s Island the Metta Catharina of Flensburg bound from Petersburg for Genoa laden with hemp and leather. Vessel and cargo entirely lost; crew saved.

- Letter written in Plymouth England and published in Sherborne Mercury, 18 December 1786

What does this 1786 disaster have to do with an intact, antique reindeer hide? In 1973 – 187  years after this shipwreck – members of the curiously named Plymouth Sound Sub-Aqua Club were exploring the seabed near Drake’s Island. At a depth of around 100 feet on the Cornish side of the sound the divers came across the long-lost bell of the Die Frau Metta Catherina. Subsequent explorations at the site of wreck brought up a wide range of ship parts and cargo items including a surprising number of large mud covered bundles that turned out to be rolls of leather, specifically, Russia leather. While the outermost hides on each bundle were badly deteriorated the majority inside were in near pristine condition.

After 1600 this type of distinctively cross-hatched leather was widely sought after by affluent Europeans and Americans. The deep rich color and supple feel made these hides the perfect upholstery material for fine furniture as well as other leather goods such as clothing and even shoes. The cost of Russia leather was high, both because of the shipping expense and the premium put on the material by Russian tanners who safely guarded their secret process. Production involved many weeks or even months of soaking or “tanning” animal hides in extracts from the bark and leaves of willow, birch, chestnut or oak trees. Chemically, the tannins bound themselves to the collagen proteins in the leather. This made them more water resistant and also far more flexible. Adding to the high cost was the laborious cross-hatching of each hide with a sharp cutter, a process which was decorative and helped soften the leather even more by breaking the surface and allowing for more effective penetration of the tannins during soaking.

American upholsterers used all kinds of hides on furniture, including cow, sheep, goat, calf, oxen, buffalo, and in more rural places perhaps even deer. However, imported Russian leather was prized above all. Recent research by Leroy Graves and Margaret Pritchard from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia revealed a 1727 correspondence from Boston upholsterer Thomas Fitch to a client named Colonel Coddington. Fitch wrote: “…no Rushia leather chairs or other, nor Leather to make them of. Russhia Leather is so very high at home that it won't answer, If I hand any they would certainly be at Your Service. I think mr Downs has New England red Leather, but there’s no Rushia.” Today, a small number of surviving hides from the Die Frau Metta Catherina can be purchased (for around $2,000-3,000 a piece), and some do still get used to upholster furniture. At the time of discovery of the wreck, many were used to make high-end commercial products such as Oxford shoes and fancy brief cases. Only a select number of these hides are in museum collections intact and unused.