The History of Brain Tan

Adapted for the web from a chapter in Deerskins into Buckskins
by Matt Richards

When most people think of buckskin they envision long fringed Indians on horseback or adventurous frontiersmen on a remote mountain hunt. Little do they know that it was once as common as blue jeans. Did you know that it was the work clothes of the common laborer in 18th century America and Europe? That General George Washington ordered buckskins to be made for the troops? Or that it was fashionable among the elite of Europe? Remember those images of men in powder white wigs, breeches and long stockings. Guess what those breeches were made of… Have you ever told a friend, “uh, that cost me a couple of bucks“. Well that’s because buckskin was such a common commodity of exchange in the American colonies that after the Revolution, buck became the slang for a dollar bill. But deer me, that’s getting ahead of things, lets go back to the beginning.

Genesis iii 21:  “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”

The Stone Age

Stone age peoples, cavemen, and hunter gatherers all over the world had some things in common. Soaking hides in brains and pulling them soft seems to be one of them. It was part of the daily life of primitive peoples on every continent. There are accounts of brain and/or smoke tanning by the Zulus of southern Africa (brains), the Chukchee of eastern Russia (liver, urine and smoke), nomadic peoples of Asia (fermented milk, butter, and egg yolk), northern Asia (brains, liver and sour milk,) China (smoke), South America (smoke) and North America (brains, smoke, liver, sweet corn, eggs, pine nuts, yucca root and a whole lot of other things!). Here’s an account from Japan:

Zulu hide tanning

An oil tanning process which appears to be ancient, but which is still carried on in Japan…..

To prepare Koshuinden leather, one starts with dried deerskin which has been soaked to the extent that the grain layer, together with the hair can be shaved away with a skiving knife. Tanning is accomplished by coating with animal brain matter or spinal-cord substance, for which mechanical tumbling, kneading, and staking probably are indispensable. A smoke tanning now follows, according the the description of Sawayama…” 

From Chemistry and Technology of Leather edited by Fred O’Flaherty, 1956

Although English and German tanners were brain tanning as recently as the late 19th and early 20th century, all that remains from stone age Europe are some bone and stone tanning tools. The earliest record of European tanning is in 

Homer’s Iliad (389 f.): 

The ox hide, which is soaked in fat, is pulled to and fro by men standing in a circle, thus stretching the skin and causing the fat to penetrate into the pores.

One of the things I really like about buckskin is that if we could look back far enough, nearly every one of us would find some ancestor who lived their lives wearing this wonderful garment. Its something we have in common. Getting skins soft was undoubtedly one of the very first arts that ancient humans developed.

Many a campfire has been spent wondering why or who first thought to put brains on a skin? and then stretch it … dry. Recently I stumbled upon the true story. An Iroquois tale:

A stiff deer skin was one day walking around from house to house through an Indian village, frightening everyone it visited. At last it went to the house of a man who was boiling deer’s brains for a vomit. He did not propose to be frightened by this mysterious skin out of his house, and therefore he poured the hot water solution of deer’s brains upon the stiff skin which at once softened it down, took away from it all power of motion, and flattened it to the floor. The people in fright had been shooting it with arrows. After it was softened they began to pull it and thus resulted the tanned deer skins.

From Lewis H. Morgan’s Iroquois Material Culture, 1855.

Like most great inventions, it was purely accidental.

Native America

Buckskin was made and used by all of the culture areas of Native North America, from the fishermen of the rainy northwest coast and the caribou hunters of the tundra, to the farmers of the southwest and eastern woodlands.

‘Scrappy Bull’ in a buckskin shirt

Deerskins were the most commonly tanned, worn and utilized skin because of their durability, softness and availability. They were the basic “fabric” of pre-historic times. Other animal skins were also tanned using variations of the brain tanning process, (buffalo, moose, elk, antelope, caribou, bighorn sheep). Even furs were tanned using brains and woodsmoke, though they were handled differently to prevent the hair from slipping out.

This Shawnee man was sketched in 1826 by Tardieu L’aine. Notice that his buckskin clothing isn’t fringed. Buckskin was used and worn in many styles besides the stereotypical fringed leggings and loincloth.

Most of what we know about traditional brain tanning methods comes from the American Indians. There is an extensive record of their tanning processes, written down by anthropologists, explorers and Indians. For a detailed analyses of these tanning methods, read’s online article Brains, Bones & Hotsprings: Native American Deerskin Dressing at the Time of Contact.

Colonial America and Renaissance Europe

Brain tan was the everyday garb of the American Indians when the Europeans first arrived, but in Europe the availability of deerskins to the commoner had long since disappeared. Only the aristocracy were allowed to hunt. In the Twenty-Fifth Year of the Reign of King George the Third (1785) came this revision to the Magna Carta of 1215

No man from henceforth shall lose either Life or Member for Killing our Deer: But if any man be taken, and convict for taking of our Venison, he shall make a grievous Fine, if he have anything whereof: and if have nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned a Year and a Day; and after the Year and Day expired, if he can find sureties he shall be delivered; and if not, he shall abjure the Realm of England.

This version was clearly more lenient than what came before.

The New World provided a seemingly endless supply of deer. The trade in buckskins, tanned and raw, boomed. Common laborers valued its durability. By the 1750’s it was the style among the wealthy of Europe to wear yellow buckskin breeches and gauntlets. It was hunting and riding wear, fashionable in the most elite circles. Customs records indicate that between 1755 and 1773; 2,601,152 lbs. of deerskins were shipped to England from Savannah, Georgia, just one of many ports. Many of these skins had already been brain and smoke tanned by the Creek and Cherokee. 

Wigs and buckskin breeches

Buckskins were universally worn from the tradesmen to those of first rank in the kingdom.

Malachye Postlethewayt, author of The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, 1774. England is the kingdom referred to.

In America, the pioneers, woodsmen, trappers, soldiers and farmers, anyone who spent time out of the settlements, began to wear buckskin. It was the only fabric that could stand up to the wear and tear of the trail, as homespun would snag and tear on the twigs and briars. Another advantage was that it could be manufactured at home from a readily available source.

By 1741, Augusta (Georgia) was, according to one rosy report, thriving ‘prodigiously’. The rough little village was declared ‘the most flourishing town in the Province.’ Augusta’s success was largely related to the growing popularity of tanned deerskin for clothing and other uses.

From Deerskins and Duffels by Kathryn E. Holland Braund

Deer hides were, in fact, a profitable commercial item and one of the few dependable early sources of income for the settlers. Like the frock, buckskin breeches were first worn by workingmen. In the eighteenth century they were adopted by the English upper classes for hunting, and thus became fashionable. In addition to leggings, moccasins and breeches, buckskin was also used for overalls.

From Dress for the Ohio Pioneers, edited by Patricia A. Cunningham and Susan Voso Lab.

When the colonists decided it was time to create their own country and separate from England, the revolutionaries wore buckskin and homespun. It was practical, available and patriotic, for it came from their own land and didn’t support British trade. General George Washington ordered thousands of buckskin moccasins and shirts to be made for the troops. 

American Revolutionaries were often referred to as ‘Buckskins’, as that was what they typically wore.

During the early part of the war a hunting shirt of buckskin or linen, breeches (of buckskin) and gaiters, large brimmed hat, ruffled shirt and black stock was the field service dress recommended by General Washington.

The final choice of color, which did not materialize until the war’s end, resolved into blue coat with red facings and buckskin breeches.” 

From How To Make Historic American Costumes by Mary Evans.

There was one battalion in particular that was famous for wearing only buckskin: Gen. Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen. They were some of the best woodsmen of the time, sent on the more adventurous missions of the American Revolution.

Like blue jeans today that started as work clothing, were glamorized and then sentimentalized as symbolic of a certain life style, the (buckskin) hunting shirt started as work clothing, was glamorized by its role in the Revolutionary War and then was sentimentalized as symbolic of the intrepid woodsman and explorer.

From Dress for the Ohio Pioneers

The American Frontier

Lewis and Clark in buckskins at Three Forks, Montana.
(drawing by E.S. Paxson)

Buckskin continued to be worn by Indians and frontiers-people alike down through the civil war. It was worn by the early miners of the California gold rush. It was worn by mountain men, trappers and missionaries. It was worn by the Texas Rangers, and many of those who died in the Alamo. The riders of the Pony Express claimed that it was ideal for cutting cold winds. It was part of the attire of both sides in the battles between the U.S. Cavalry and the Indians. But most of all it was worn by just plain folks.

Buckskins were a sign of who was prepared for the rigors of the frontier and who was not. Gustav Dresel, a young German immigrant in the days of the Texas Republic, put it this way:

Jim Bridger, a trapper,
in a buckskin jacket

I joined the seven huntsmen, who (were) clad in buckskin from head to foot… My trousers were partially trimmed with buckskin, it is true, and my coat was made of beaverteen (twilled cotton) but they prophesied that even after only a week I should not be able to recognize my exterior because the briars, the thicket, and the wet high grass would harass me so hard. I had traversed the region on the Navasota athwart forest and prairie for four days when rags of my inexpressibles were already suspended from my legs.

In a letter dated January 16, 1822, Maria Austin wrote her son, Stephen, in Texas: 

I should have exerted myself in fitting him (brother James) out, agreeable to your wishes–especially in getting him a suit of buckskin. It grieves me whenever I think what a poor outfit he had, so improper for the work he will find necessary to be done.

Did Mother Austin soak her hides in brains? This is not certain. Many during this era used a mixture of soap and lard instead.

The Disappearance of Buckskin….

Buckskin making has always been done by hand. It has never been successfully industrialized. As the industrial revolution penetrated America, durable woven fabrics became available. Made in factories, with all their advantages of material and human exploitation, they were not as durable as buckskin, but they were cheap and much more durable than anything else the machines had churned out. One of these new materials was known as blue jeans, Levi’s. Over the year’s, Levi’s took the place of buckskin in people’s wardrobe, until the use and manufacture of buckskin was all but forgotten. It was even discouraged on the reservations. By the turn of the century, most Indians stopped making and wearing brain tan buckskin.

This same period marked the lowpoint of North American deer populations. They had been overhunted for decades by market hunters providing meat and skins to the mining camps, the railroad crews and the rest of the frontier. They were hunted almost as intensely as Buffalo, but survived because they lived in diverse habitats coast to coast rather than in giant herds on the open prairie. Their population in the U.S. bottomed out at an estimated 500,000 between the years of 1875 and 1915.

It (the deer) is so abundant in certain portions of the Pacific Coast that I have heard of market hunters who killed five and six hundred in a season by stalking alone, and it was reported to me in 1874 that over three thousand were slaughtered within a period of five months in a region having an area of less than two hundred miles, and that most of them were sent to market and sold at four cents, or two pence per pound.

John Mortimer Murphy (1879)

This ruthless destruction is producing the most disastrous results, for where mule deer were so plentiful in 1868 that they could be seen by the hundred in a march of twenty-four hours, scarcely a dozen could be seen in the same region in 1877.

Same author describing market deer hunting in Montana.

As the industrial revolution penetrated America, deerskins started to be tanned by the new chrome process. Though the chrome tanned skins were weaker, didn’t breath, responded poorly to washing and perspiration, the chrome process made use of inexpensive chemicals and was easy to produce with the new machines. Buckskin tanning is a labor intensive process, lending itself to home-crafting rather than production in a factory.

….And Its Return

Undoubtedly there were some folks somewhere who continued to make buckskin, but the knowledge of its manufacture, once as basic of a home industry as soap making, was no longer common. Since 1915 the deer population has rebounded to a healthy 30 million in the U.S. Of the six million deer killed each hunting season only a small percentage ever make it to a tannery. Most are left in the field or tossed into a dumpster. In the last thirty years interest in living with the land, and wisely using its resources has once again proliferated. Different individuals have sought out the knowledge of how to make the buckskin that was described in old woods-lore books and descriptions of the Indians. They sought the aid of Native American friends who remembered some of the old ways. They pieced together what they could from the scanty accounts that were available and tried to find a workable process.

From the backyards, wood-lots and reservations of America, this old and nearly lost art was slowly rediscovered. Eventually folks started running into each other and sharing their discoveries, tips and theories; amazed to meet someone else who ‘brain-tanned’. Booklets and books were written: Indian-Tan Buckskin by Buckskin Slim Schaefer; Tanning Hides the Sioux Way by Larry Belitz; Blue Mountain Buckskin by Jim Riggs; Brain-Tan Buckskin by John McPherson. These books and teachers, among others, set off a renewed interest in the art as people saw the beauty and practicality of buckskin. 

Since then many different methods of arriving at that same goal have been discovered or rediscovered. Those of us who brain tan have always been happy to share our new discoveries with one another and as a result we have all gotten better at the art. Much like computers, brain tanning is an art that we are continually improving our knowledge of as we discover or rediscover better techniques. Recent books, Wetscrape Braintanned Buckskin and Deerskins into Buckskins, reflect these easier methods. As does the pre-smoking method taught by the Dinsmores, and the dry scraping techniques taught by the Maness’s.

These days brain tan buckskin is experiencing a much welcomed renaissance*. What seemed like an obscure art ten years ago, is now the preferred method for home tanning across America. When I used to tell people what I do for a living I’d say: 

I tan hides using natural oils and woodsmoke, its the old method that people used to use….

Nowadays when I say that same phrase, most people look at me for a second, and then say: 

Oh, you mean you brain tan…

the end

The End

*(Brain tanning has gotten so popular that Deerskins into Buckskins is the best selling leathercraft book of any kind on How cool!)