It was a dark stormy night...ok, actually it wasn't. In reality it was a rainy, slushy and muddy October afternoon in 2017. My husband and I were elk hunting on cattle ranch located on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. We had not gotten an elk that particular day, and had come back to our cabin. I happened to look outside and saw that one of the Peruvian ranch hands was working on a project, so like any self-respecting person, I went outside to see if he needed a hand. In the course of conversation, he happened to mention that where he was from in Peru, they used cooked beef fat (also called "tallow") to waterproof and condition their saddles and leather equipment. I was stunned. I’d never heard of conditioning leather with tallow. I’d only ever used leather conditioners purchased from the store that had mystery ingredients and left my hands and skin feeling, well...YUCKY. After the hunting trip was over and I was back in the real world, I pondered over what he told me. It was then I began to research using rendered beef tallow as a leather conditioner. This is what we found out...
History of Tallow's Use as a Leather Conditioner
Up until about 75 years ago, tallow was one of the primary methods for which leather was kept conditioned and in usable, working shape. In England it was traditionally called (and still is in some circles) “curriers’ grease.” In addition, older military handbooks in the United States contained instructions on properly maintaining leather equipment recommended the use of tallow based leather conditioners, calling them by the name, “Dubbin.”
Around the 1940's and the emergence of WWII, the world started to change when it came to taking care of leather. It was then that petroleum and vegetable oils, as well as other synthetic fats and oils, more commonly came into use on leather as conditioners. Production of these new oils and synthetic fats were often cheaper than the cost of obtaining beef tallow. There were also many historical changes happening during that time period which had been brought on by WWII-driven innovation.
Machinery and automobiles started to replace horses and reduced much of the need for leather harness and saddlery. Additionally, other types of materials had been invented that were able to compete with the qualities that up until that point were only found in leather. This further reduced the need for leather on a large scale.
Concurrently, the food supply chain for much of the developed world was going through some hefty transitions. Prior to WWII, the majority of people grew and raised much of their own food in addition to cooking most foods from scratch. This included a common knowledge of how to render and process their own animal fats, including beef tallow. Tallow was a highly prized commodity, used in cooking as well as other applications around the farm and household. Tallow was used for candles, soap making, hand salve, for oiling and lubrication of machinery, as well as for the waterproofing and conditioning of leather items.
After WWII, the food industry began to move towards a food production model more similar to that of today, which was one of food being grown and raised on a large scale. It became more common for individual households to purchase foods pre-processed and pre-packaged. Within one to two generations, the once common knowledge on how to make beef tallow, as well as the need for it, became greatly lessened as cheaper alternatives to tallow and its uses flooded the market. At the same time, the leather industry saw a sharp decrease in demand for leather harness and saddlery.
Tallow and The Modern Day
Back to the present day and Colorado Natural Balms. After learning the historical background of tallow's use as a leather conditioner, we decided to do some market research to see if there were currently any natural products for leather care and conditioning.
We quickly found out there was not much.
The majority of the leather conditioning products available did not list ingredients, and said things like this in the fine print on their labels:
“Not for use on skin. Keep away from pets and children. If ingested, call poison control."
Yikes! And then it dawned on us - why couldn’t we manufacture our own tallow-based natural leather conditioner? Thus, the idea for Colorado Natural Balms was born.
After six months of product research and development and over 200 highly satisfied individual testers using Colorado Leather Balm on their boots, shoes, handbags, baseball gloves, antique leather items, saddles, bridles, older furniture and vehicle leather seats, we were ready to start selling!