Leather Hinges–Myth or Truth?

The tiny door on the right supposedly has leather hinges.

This picture claims to show leather hinges on the tiny door on the right.

Del Taylor, Program Coordinator at Sainte Marie among the Hurons, wrote: “I recently took a trip to Disney World in Florida and one of the books about Disney stated that the look of some of the buildings portraying Colonial America had shutters on the windows with metal hinges on the bottom and leather on the top which made them appeared skewed to save costs. They gave the impression that this is well documented and researched. What do you think?”

Well, here’s what I’ve discovered from three architectural historians.

The first said she had never heard of such a thing.
The second said it sounded very strange and he noted that leather would not hold up well at all.
The third said “sheer nonsense. If anything, one would have put the iron hinge on top so if the leather bottom hinge tore loose, the top would hold. The other way around the top breaks loose and tips the door over ripping out the lower hinge. Wonder where this crock came from?”
I wondered too. 

Wikipedia says that serfs fastened their doors and windows with leather because they couldn’t afford metal hinges, but they cite no source. Anyway, even if it is true, that’s medieval Europe, not colonial America.

Baskets and boxes can have leather hinges. I’ve seen many; you probably have too.

Does anyone have any further information documenting this practice?

 

18 Responses to Leather Hinges–Myth or Truth?

  1. Janet K. Seapker says:

    I have seen leather washers on iron hinges, generally an 18th century or early 19th century practice. Janet Seapker

    • Mary Miley says:

      Yes, so have I. But leather hinges? Any from that period would not have survived until today, so saying that I haven’t seen any doesn’t mean much.

  2. Somehow I seem to recall Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioning in one of her books Pa using leather hinges when he builds one of the cabins. I no longer own the books so I can’t double check on that. And of course, I could be completely misremembering that.

  3. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    Now this is 19th century, but it seems that I remember in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (though I cannot remember which book–maybe Little House on the Prairie?–and I would not swear to this), she talks about Pa making leather hinges for the cabin door–or maybe it was for their smokehouse in Little House in the Big Woods. Guess I’ll have to get my books out again and see if I dreamed that up. But yes, I wouldn’t think leather hinges would be all that practical out in the weather.

    • Melissa Nesbitt says:

      Yes–I just did a quick internet search of “Little House…” and leather hinges. My memory was correct–but it was the little door on the smokehouse in Little House in the Big Woods.

  4. James "Jake" Pontillo says:

    I remember reading something about building some kind of (emergency) cabin and using the soles of an old shoe as a hinge on the door. WISH I could remember where I read this. But even in the absence of real metal hinges one can make a wooden hinge easy enough – Have a projection on the sides with a hole and a pin linking them.. Have one from the door side and one from the frame side…

  5. Jean says:

    Kelly, Melissa, and readers,

    Please remember that the Little House books were written many decades after the events plus were rather heavily edited.

    I do agree that the smokehouse door would be light, and the strip of leather might even serve to keep the smoke inside?

    The book series is wonderful, but not a primary source.

  6. Hi! The cabin you have pictured in this blog entry is the Howard Cabin from our site (Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth, TX). It’s a 19th century structure.

    Now as to the accuracy of leather hinges–we don’t know. In our case, the leather was more-than-likely due to cabin reconstructors wishing to cover modern hardware when the cabins were rebuilt here on site in the 1950s. The door you’re referring to is not a tiny door at all–that’s just the perspective of the photograph. It is likely not an original door, however, and was added when the house was remodeled in later years (actually led to a covered porch). It’s non-functioning now.

    Thanks for the great blog posts!

    • Mary Miley says:

      Ahh, I’m delighted to know this. If this leather hinge instance isn’t original, I’m persuaded the practice was rare at best.

  7. Allen Keener says:

    This article came at an interesting time. I am currently reading “Economic History of the American People” written by Ernest Ludlow Bogart, then Professor of Economics, University of Illinois, Copyright 1930. On page 82 he talks about the Leather manufacturers of the Colonies and states “Hinges for doors, straps in lieu of springs for coaches, and even bed supports were made of leather.” At the end of each chapter he has Bibliographical notes for where he got his information for that chapter. There are a lot of Books and research material listed and some very old. Trying to track down some of these may prove impossible. But if the community on hand is will to research this to a true conclusion I can scan and up load the Bibliographical notes and we can spit the list trying to find his source.

    • Mary Miley says:

      This is very cool, Allen. Are you saying that there are no citations per se, only a list of sources for each chapter? How many sources are we talking about? I can’t imagine spending hours on this, and presume no one else cares to either, but it might be possible for me to check out a couple likely ones next time I’m in Williamsburg’s research library.

  8. Gerry Barker says:

    Before we built Martin’s Station I did a lot of research into door and hinge construction. I found doors described as having no hinges at all and wedged into place (James Nourse, Sr. description of Harrod’s Fort) I found wooden hinges galore and close to Martin’s I found originals at the Hensley Settlement and Cade’s Cove. I have built about twenty reproduction cabins and block houses for various institutions and organizations. We have tried leather a couple of times. They didn’t last. I also have leather hinges on a couple of chests I have put together. Before writing this reply I went out and looked at the oldest one I still have on hand (six years old). They are on their last legs. My conclusion would be that cabin builders knew the limitations. If leather was used it was a temporary measure that was going to be replaced.

  9. Simone Hopkins says:

    My grandfather’s barn had many leather hinges. I remember him cutting an old belt and nailing it to a feed box door.

  10. Gary says:

    My Grandparents old homestead in Clearfield, KY had leather hinges on some of the out buildings. The chicken coop, wood shed, possibly others. I went in and out these doors many times…

  11. N says:

    I cannot remember where I read it, but the explanation that Disney gives is that they use (faux) leather hinges to recreate those that were used during war-times, when all the iron was collected up to be melted down into ammunition. No idea if this is historically accurate, but that is their inspiration!

  12. Mike Fox says:

    According to the book, The Imagineers’ Secrets of Walt Disney World, the sagging shutters found in Liberty Square are a result of leather being used in place of metal hinges. During the Revolutionary War, Britain refused to sell the Americans any weapons or ammunition. As a result, the colonists were forced to melt down any available metal and forge and cast it into ammunition for their guns and cannons.

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