What made the leather on accoutrements from the 1860’s special?
One must first look at what type of leather the U.S. Ordnance Dept was purchasing to make accouterments (cartridge boxes, cap pouches, bayonet scabbards, belts and etc.). There were several qualities they were looking for in the leather, but the most important was a water resistance in the finish. There were several other features that would have been important, like tannage and the dye itself, but by far the finish on the grain surface held the key to a serviceable leather gear in the field.
The main quality looked for by the Ordnance was leather with good water resistance. Why is this so important? Failing to use water resistant leather allowed water to penetrate the leather and caused several problems. The first problem was the possibility that water damage leached out the tannins, leaving the leather unprotected and susceptible to rot and decay. The second problem was water penetrating inside the cartridge box and the tins rusting. If the fragile paper cartridges became wet they were made useless because moisture made the powder hard; not to mention moisture caused damage to the thread that held the whole item together. So, if the leather for accoutrements was not made water resistant, a soldier’s ability to fight in the field was almost impossible.
The leather that the Ordnance used was one that had a multilayer finish; meaning that the leather was finished four different times. This level of finish would give the leather a high degree of water resistance. The term “finished” does not mean one that was greased and oiled, but a true finish made up of waxes and other ingredients (see formula at the bottom of this post). Oils and grease did not make a good finish because they trapped moisture in the leather that could not escape, thus beginning the rot process. Although the rot problem was slow to show up, it nevertheless shortened the lifespan of the item. Oil softened the leather in a unique way by changing the shape and placement of the fibers. Oil penetrated the fibers, causing them to distend and swell. Fibers then moved out of a tightly packed order into a looser order. This is why the leather became soft.
Physical changes, such as the ones aforementioned, caused the leather to become not only soft, but weak as well. Weakness in leather is irreparable. This was also evident in shoes that were oiled to the extent that the leather began to crack and tear. Over oiling is one of the worst things you can do to leather. Remember, a little oil goes a long way.
Even today, a well tanned, dyed and finished leather is important for leather items to have years of service. Obviously, there were reasons the Ordnance officer’s were so concerned with the quality of leather used to make a soldiers accoutrements for the field.
Here is a formula from the time for finish applied to the grain.
3 pints of milk
1 oz. glycerine
5 pints of blood
1 oz. carbolic acid
3 gallons of water
10 oz of beeswax or carnauba wax