Cordovan is an immensely popular material for shoes and leather accessories, with its special character and features. However, it was not until about 100 years ago that it first started to be used for shoes, since cordovan tanneries were forced to further develop the material after a new invention caused a historical crisis for the cordovan industry.
The origin of the cordovan leather is quite well known, it was in the 7th century that the Visigoths, one of the original Gothic peoples who lived in then France and Spain, and later the Moors, developed a way of tanning the “shell”, the part of the horse’s rump which sits between the muscles of the buttocks and the outer skin. The leather is stuffed with oils and waxes in the tanning, which gives it a bit of a plastic finish and contributes to the durability. The name cordovan comes from Cordoba, the caliphate that the Moors founded on the Iberian peninsula. The area around the city of Cordoba was a major tannery center for the entire Moorish empire.
It was first used mainly as for example the outer material on armour’s breastplates and shields. Later in the 1700-1800s cordovan was used to, among other things, create really high-quality leather artworks, with which they decorated everything from walls to war equipment. However, during the 19th century and the beginning of 1900s, the largest area of use for cordovan leather hides was for razor strops, used to sharpen razor knives. A market that was gigantic, since every man was shaving with razor knives, and the strops in cordovan were popular not least for their durability and longevity.
But then in the early 1900s, Gillette introduced the modern safety razors, which meant that people no longer had to grind a razor knife, and switched to replaceable razor blades when worn. After they became cheap and the US military demanded that everyone had this kind of razor blade, they took over completely. The demand for cordovan leather for strops fell dramatically, and tanneries working with cordovan were in a real crisis. They had to re-think things completely.
Earlier variants of the cordovan were thick and stiff, which was not at all suitable for shoes. Now the cordovan tanneries developed the product, made it thinner and more compliant which was more suitable for shoes. Cordovan’s character, durability and the opportunity to give it a real good shine quickly made it a sought-after shoe leather. Above all, American shoe manufacturers invested in the material, and it’s therefore still closely associated with them. When Horween, the largest and most famous tannery for shell cordovan today, started working with American shoe brand Alden, they hit the jackpot, and the future of the material was saved. Today, cordovan is also popular for different types of leather accessories, and those who use a leather strop still can find them in cordovan leather, although one have to search a bit more than what was the case a hundred years ago.