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Toronto’s Leather Trade: a Glance Back and a Glimpse Forward

February 2, 2012

HogtownThere was a fairly recent time in Toronto’s history, believe it or not, when Toronto had the nickname of “Hogtown.” Named by the rest of Canada because Toronto was home to a large pig and cow abattoir and, of course, for its daily dominance in the news about everything.  The tannery I first worked at chemically treated cowhide from the abattoir to be transformed eventually into any number of leather-based goods. Anything from patent leather shoes, to Doc Martins, to saddles, boots, belts, wallets, and mil-spec leather were made in these old brick buildings by old-name companies, some of them dating back to the mid- to late-19th century. To get a sense of just how recently the leather industry has evaporated from the city, pigskin was used by shoe factories to make “Hush Puppies.” Remember those?

Having decades of experience in this trade, we at DCT Leather can attest to the massive changes that the city has undergone within our own lifetimes. Back when we were just getting started in the leather business, tanneries were still a surefire means of procuring oneself a profitable living in the big city. Starting off in the 1970s, while working in a tannery that did waterproofing for leather work boots, I found myself in an environment that, as someone else aptly put it, felt straight out of a Charles Dickens novel.  Everything from the stench of the actual tanning facility, a stench that literally hadn’t changed since the Stone Age, to the archaic wooden desks, chairs, and clocks that stood about the office: everything suggested a sense of timelessness that would never require substitution.

Fax MachineOf course, that didn’t turn out to be the case. At least three critical transformations shook Toronto’s tanning manufacturing facilities, forcing them either to shut their doors or to relocate abroad. The first change that came (a change which already feels outdated in of itself) was the fax machine. People who were buying leather for shoes no longer needed to deal with a local importer for proximity’s sake. They could simply fax an order to, say, China, and request “The next seasons order of children women and men’s’ shoes or boots.” The fact that East Asian labor was so cheap didn’t allow local businesses to compete. The cost of shipping a container of shoes long-distance was still far less than North American labor needed to produce these products.

The second development was the perfection of international delivery services like FedEx and UPS. Prior to these shipping companies becoming global juggernauts, it was safe for a Canadian tannery to have a turnaround time that involved getting back to or delivering goods to a customer by the end of the week. With the advent of overnight shipping, came a turnaround time where one simply didn’t have time to catch one’s breath. FedEx & UPS AirplanesNot only could one fax one’s orders to China within seconds, but one could receive one’s smaller orders from China (or Vietnam, India, the Philippines, etc.) within the matter of a few long hours. Overseas suddenly became overnight.

While all this was going on the environmental issues from the processing became more severe as you could no longer wash out your tanning drums or let the toxins make there way up the chimneys. The tanneries could not keep up with the rules and regulations of the 21st century. By this time, our tannery was owned by a larger company in Milwaukee and it met its demise taking our tannery with it.

Toronto is still called “Hogtown” but not because of the abattoir and tangent trades. Today, the former tanneries along the waterfront are being redeveloped into up-scale bohemian lofts and apartments.  But just a few short years ago, an entirely different world flourished, and then vanished here.

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