A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects


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De Leerbereider [Tanner] by Jan Luykens (1694)

Tanning, woodcut by Jost Amman (1539-1591)

Our house on Water Street behind the "two rods reserved by the river"


I was idly leafing through some of the engravings in The Book of Trades (1694) by the Dutch poet and engraver Jan Luykens when I paused on one. It showed a tanner using a "pilling knife" to remove fat from a hide laid over a log. Behind him, a bare-footed tanner squelched a tanned hide in the canal to clean it from tanning liquids -- and, believe me, you'd want every last drop of those liquids cleaned from any leather you were going to wear.

I was particularly interested in seeing tanners at work because our house was built on the site of an early tannery. The Ipswich Town Record of Jan 11, 1640, tells us that "liberty was granted to Thomas Clarke . . . to sett down Tann fatts, at the end of the planting lot, upon two rods reserved by the river."

The town had reserved a strip two rods (11 yards) wide all along the river bank, which means that Clarke was allowed to place his "fatts" [vats] on town land. When you remember that the main ingredient in a "tan fatt" was urine, you have to wonder how well the neighbors were served by Clarke's "liberty." Come to think of it, though, the neighbors themselves must surely have made their own contributions toward filling the vats, so presumably they weren't all that bothered.

But "tann fats" obviously could cause problems: In 1642, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered that tanners should not "sett their fatts in tan-hills or other places, where the woozes or leather which shall be put to any unkind heats, or shall put any leather in any hot or warm woozes etc."  You'll need to read that three times to become as clear as I am, which is not at all, but don't you love the word "woozes" even if you have only the vaguest idea of what it might mean!

Eventually, the Clarke tannery fell on hard times, and in 1720, Nathaniel Clarke, Thomas Clarke's son, sold 21 rods of land on Water Street to Benjamin Glazier, who replaced the Clarke house with the one that we now live in, "at the end of the planting lot, upon two rods reserved by the river."


Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), the National Gallery, London

The lady's wooden pattens

Our house on Water Street behind the "two rods reserved by the river"


I shouldn't have bought them: they're not beautiful, they're not useful and I bet nobody collects them. But pattens do give us a glimpse of 17th-century life. OK, that's why I bought them.

Medieval shoes, particularly ladies', had very thin soles. Medieval streets were deep in mud and filth -- think horses, dogs, chamber pots, and more. Hence the need for pattens. Pattens were overshoes with thick soles or raised platforms that lifted the wearer two to four inches above the filth. People wore them until well into the 19th century.

In 17th-century England, men began wearing thick leather boots that did not need pattens. But women needed them still, and a new design of patten evolved for them, one that had iron hoops supporting wooden soles (which also saved the newly fashionable long dresses from the dirt).

Pattens may have been practical, but they had their downsides. Churches banned them because of the loud "clink" they made on the stone floors. Jane Austen noted the same thing and complained of the "ceaseless clink of pattens" in the fashionable lifestyle of Bath.

It was good manners to take them off indoors. In Van Eyck's portrait of the Arnolfinis (1434), she has just kicked hers off (they're in the earlier, all-wood style). But Miss Branwell, aunt of the Bronte sisters, "particularly dreaded the cold damp arising from the flag floors in the passages and parlours of Haworth Parsonage ... [and] always went about the house in pattens, clicking up and down the stairs, from her dread of catching cold."

Samuel Pepys had a different problem: in his Diary for January 24, 1660, he wrote, "Called on my wife and took her to Mrs Pierce's, she in the way being exceedingly troubled with a pair of new pattens, and I vexed to go so slow." (Wooden pattens were sometimes hinged to make walking easier, and reduce the impatience of husbands like Samuel.)

Awkward, noisy and slow: I haven't tried this pair to see if the description fits (the difference between my clodhopping feet and those of a 17th-century lady is unbridgeable), but they are an authentic reminder of everyday life some 400 years ago. Nike be damned!

View them here.