A Place of Tradition and Renewal
In the French Regime, although leather was often tanned at home, a modest leather industry developed in Québec in what would become the Saint-Roch neighbourhood. Starting in 1850, the number of tanneries increased, and they became quite large as the shoe industry experienced tremendous growth. Business was booming for tanners, although the noxious odours made their work extremely hard.
In the French Regime
Many people in New France knew how to tan leather. On family farms, animal skins were often treated onsite. Nonetheless, small, specialized companies sprang up both in town and country.
In Québec, several tanneries opened near rue De Saint-Vallier and rue Arago, where the water needed for tanning flowed in abundance from the cliff and operations were far enough away from the heart of town so as not to inconvenience residents with the foul odours.
Tanneries in the Saint-Vallier district
At the turn of the 19th century, the increasingly numerous tanneries, and the homes of their owners and employees, formed what was known as the Saint-Vallier district. Most of the tanneries were small family businesses that employed only three or four people. They supplied the leather needed to make not only shoes but also horse harnesses, which were essential to the day’s horse-drawn ground transportation.
The golden age of footwear
The shoe industry set up shop in the Saint-Roch district in the early 1870s. Production skyrocketed with the use of steam engines. In 1901 the industry employed 4,000 workers, who turned out millions of pairs of shoes a year. A lot of leather was needed to meet the demand.
Between 1850 and 1872 the number of tanneries rose from around 30 to 43, and even more in subsequent years. Some grew significantly, while others remained small and artisanal. Manufacturing processes developed slowly. For example, traditional tannin, which was prepared from 360 kilograms of hemlock bark to turn skins into leather, was used in Québec City for much longer than elsewhere in North America. A chrome-based process that was four to eight times faster appeared in the United States in 1880 and spread quickly, but was not adopted in Québec City until 1908, when the Nazaire Fortier and Borne family tanneries starting using it. Québec City’s lower productivity forced manufacturers to source some of their leather from outside the region.
Difficult working conditions
Work in the tanneries was hard. Women and children were rarely employed, although they made up a third of the workforce in the shoe industry. Handling heavy, water-soaked hides was exhausting. The odours from decomposing organic materials were so strong that nauseous workers sometimes vomited on the job. Others could not eat upon their return home. The risk of infection was high, and during hide finishing, the omnipresent leather dust caused respiratory problems.
The end of an era
The tanneries gradually left Saint-Roch, which had become densely populated by the end of the 19th century. Many moved to Pointe-aux-Lièvres on the banks of the Saint-Charles River, where they enjoyed easy access to water. Others set up even further from residential areas. The last tannery in the old Saint-Vallier neighbourhood, that of Nazaire Fortier, closed its doors in the early 1990s.