I’ve always considered shell cordovan to be a dressier leather, but it wasn’t until I started looking into the history of shell cordovan tanning that I realized shell, in fact, first saw practical application in the late 1910s as…a WORK BOOT leather!
It was Victor Krause, younger son of Wolverine founder G.A. Krause, who had first successfully processed shell horsehide into a usable manufacturer’s leather in 1914, using a ‘triple tanning’ method, after studying under master tanner John Pfingsten, the man who created the vegetable re-tanning process (modern products of which include Horween’s Chromexcel.)
Before then, the shell portion of horsehide was a cheap, unusable portion which nobody paid much attention to… everyone from the now defunct Kings Bros, several military contractors, to the very much alive Thorogood/Weinbrenner featured horsehide proper on their premium work boots.
So thus it was that the Wolverine Shoe & Tanning Corporation became famous for it’s shell horsehide workboots, each pair selling less than $5.
Here’s a pair of vintage NOS Wolverine shell horsehide boots from the 50s, sold some time earlier on the bay (they’re never my size~)
As you can see, shell cordovan in it’s early iterations weren’t meant to have a ultra-polish nor dressy colours – every pair was a dull, brick-red.
Sadly, Wolverine nowadays no longer make their own 1000 Mile work boots, and certainly don’t tan their own cordovan…the recently released limited edition cordovan boot utilises Horween leather and, AFAIK, was a out-contracted production.
Of course, the most well-known shell cordovan boot maker of our age is Alden of New England.
Here’s a pair of Alden’s shell cordovan Indy boots from SuperFuture member sweapea, demonstrating fantastic shell cordovan evolution!
This girl certainly knows how to take care of her boots!
Big thanks for the amazing photos sweapea!
Shell cordovan has remarkable resilience and is uniquely “correctable” after scuffs and scratches due to the fact that it is has a rough-out facing, having fibers running at consistent, fairly vertical angles in one plane (compared to the more horizontal orientation in other cuts of horsehide.) The tanning process is also quite old-school – with bark tannage followed by many months of drying, shrinking, and finally compression & stuffing.
So really, after a scuff, the layer of leather revealed is pretty much identical to the previous layer, differing only in, perhaps, the amount of dye. Hence no matter how beat up a pair of shell cordovan boots are, a well-tanned piece will always look fantastic after some proper maintenance!
But why is shell cordovan such an expensive leather nowadays, considering it went straight into the scrap bin one century ago?
Well, consider that:
- Horsehide in general is not much produced but still in high demand by makers of high-end, niche products
- Each complete piece of horsehide can only yield enough cordovan for 1.5 pairs of boots
- Less than a handful of tanneries in the world produce shell, and the French/Japanese makers are struggling with output
The pricing aside, shell cordovan does give us a very interesting snapshot of modern leather development, and provides a good study into work-wear for fashion trend and 21st century Americana.