(first posted 4/1/2014) For nearly forty years, so many people have been erroneously believing and perpetuating the myth that Corinithian leather was simply a marketing ploy by Chrysler Corporation to up-sell unsuspecting buyers, particularly those seeking a Cordoba. Such is not the case. The history of Corinthian leather goes back about a century before then and it is the culmination of various factors merging together.
Missouri native George Washington Carver has become most famous for his research into finding a nearly limitless number of uses for the ordinary peanut. While his work has forever changed the contributions of this most humble legume, Carver’s work was by no means limited to one thing as he also performed research into various uses for cotton and cotton seeds.
Carver spent many years in academia and it was during his time at Tuskegee University in Alabama that he first grew interested in uses for the cotton seed.
For those unfamiliar with the cotton plant, each tuft of cotton contains a sizable seed that must be extracted before the cotton can be processed.
While Eli Whitney had revolutionized the cotton industry in the Southern United States with his cotton gin in 1807, there were still the residual seeds with which something had to be done. That’s where Carver enters the picture.
Knowing this seed had to be good for something other than filling eroded areas on hillsides, Carver went to work seeking practical uses for the seed. The cotton seed would ultimately be one of the tougher challenges Carver had in his long and enviable career, but it also wound up being one of his most profound successes. Tragically, it has gone nearly unpublicized.
Carver did immediately discover the cotton seed could yield a prodigious amount of human-safe oil. However at this time food was fried in either lard or bacon grease, so Carver did not foresee any immediate use or demand for cottonseed oil. His research continued for some time, prompting little more than frustration for several years.
One year during his Christmas break, Carver went to visit friends in Georgia. The family had been preparing for winter and had a few heads of cattle to butcher. They were also going to tan the hides for various uses around the farm.
Watching the process of tanning hides, Carver was aghast that such harsh substances as lye had to be used to strip away the fat and hair. He knew this was unpleasant work and the lye could be quite harsh to the skin. He was determined to find a way to improve the process by using safer substances. His deep intellect shifted into overdrive.
Resuming his now abandoned work on finding further uses for cotton seeds, Carver sought to learn if anything in the seed could provide a reasonable alternative to lye. He quickly discovered that while it could not substitute for the lye, the cotton seed did provide some of the mineral-based material needed for a quality tanning of animal hides. It worked just as well on cow hide as it did hog, llama, and buffalo hides.
As with any new methodology, Carver expended a fair amount of effort in honing in on peak efficiencies with his new process. After doing so, he began to discreetly market his new found knowledge.
After conducting an extensive, furtive search, Carver found an immigrant leather maker named Trygve Luetkemeyer who was highly enthusiastic about this opportunity. Luetkemeyer, a son of a Norwegian mother and a German father, was a pioneer in his industry and was quite eager to try out this new technology. His pitfall was trying to find the large, steady source of cotton seeds he would require.
Luetkemeyer was diligent in his efforts to secure a desirable location. This proved to be an exercise in ongoing frustration for him. As people in the southern United States had been discarding cotton seeds for so long, his interest in them was often greeted with either amusement or skepticism. Undeterred, his scouting around revealed a number of good locations; the most reliable and easily accessed source was in Corinth, Mississippi.
Corinth is at the intersection of two major railroads, a crossing that had been such a vital link during the Civil War it had led to two major battles being fought in Corinth. The City of Corinth was also quite eager to fund its progress and expand its financial resources. Both battles had taken a tremendous toll on the population of Corinth, as had the number of wounded that had camped out there after the Battle of Shiloh. For those not familiar with the United States Civil War, the death toll at Shiloh was 23,000, one of the highest numbers ever experienced in any battle during any war in United States history. The Confederate Army retreated twenty-two miles to the south into the town of Corinth, giving Corinth three severe blows in a very short time frame. The events of 1862 and 1863 almost caused Corinth to evaporate.
The town elders shrewdly viewed Luetkemeyer’s overture as a very lucrative opportunity. As wiser minds tended to be more prevalent in those days, the town elders were able to negotiate a deal with Luetkemeyer, but with one stipulation: they sought some form of recognition for their town. It was agreed upon that the final product was to give a nod to the town of Corinth, as they sought some degree of name recognition in an effort to lure more businesses and people to relocate there.
Luetkemeyer became quite wealthy from using the process Carver discovered in making leather. And, as per his agreement, Luetkemeyer marketed his product as Corinthian Leather.
You now know the true origins of this most high quality product.