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The History of Leather Drinking Vessels

Leather drinking vessels and water carriers have been in use since Neolithic times, but it was during the medieval and later Tudor periods that they became particularly popular. Leather is mainly worked wet so that it can be shaped. When air dried it becomes what is known as jack leather and medieval leather vessels therefore became known as jacks. Later fashion, particularly in Tudor times, added a wider base, presumably to promote better stability as found with those discovered with the wreck of the Mary Rose. However, use of the jack continued until Nelsons time when they were known as Boots, hence the naval phrase "Fill up your Boots" meaning "have a drink". Jacks, or tankards as they became known, were then used during the Crimea. They do not make a noise on the fighting front and can be easily repaired in the field. Leather jacks and tankards were used during the 20th Century, particularly in the mining and steel industries, where copious amounts of drinking water were necessary because of either the dusty or hot atmospheres. In the Barnsley mining area they became known as Jingle Boys because of bells attached to the base of the handle which was rung to attract the water boy. As time progressed the waterproof membrane was placed only on the inside of the vessel. Again beeswax was used, but was an expensive method and had to be replaced at regular intervals. More commonly used was birch tree sap which, in more modern times, has been replaced with Brewers Pitch, a material used to caulk the old wooden beer barrels.


Materials

Leather used for our Jacks, tankards and goblets is British cow shoulder hide, normally 5mm thick for structural strength, hand stitched with plain linen thread. Leather is normally worked wet to allow moulding to a shape that is permanent once it dries; this is particularly important for leather carving, the process we use to decorate our tankards, jacks and bombards. The process is called leather carving because the initial design is cut freehand into the surface with a vertical bladed swivel knife and the wet leather is moulded with various tools on either side of the cut to eventually create a 3D effect. We then hand colour the designs using water-based leather stain which allows only one application, as in a water colour, rather than oils which can be re worked. Alternatively, dates or initials can be engraved into the surface of the leather. The process depends upon the nature of the design and we will be pleased to discuss the correct one for you if you ring or email us.

Vessels are waterproofed, or beer proofed, with brewers pitch, being the traditional method of re caulking wooden beer barrels, or lining water tanks and pipes prior to the advent of modern epoxy resins. Brewers pitch is acceptable in contact with consumable liquids when the contact is transitory, as ale and wine normally is, at least in leather tankards as used by us!! Historically either boiled birch tree sap or bees’ wax would have been used. Goblet bases are turned beach stained to match the leather, again using the same water-based stain as used for the carved leather decoration.

Maintenance

Wash by swilling out with clear, cold water and clean the outside with a wet cloth. It does not matter if the outside gets wet but it must not be immersed in water. Use ONLY FOR COLD drinks. The vessel will take all carbonated drinks except coke and neat spirits. Do not attempt to squeeze the vessel. If it were made of glass you would not squeeze it because you would know the result. The same thing can happen to the lining, simply treat it as though it were made of glass. Smooth over the crack with a hot knife blade. Careful use of a gas powered blow torch can be beneficial by slightly softening the surface to make it more receptive to the hot knife treatment, however, be sure you do not overheat the vessel because it can cause scorching of the outside surface of the leather for which we cannot be held responsible.

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