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The Untold History of Horween Tanning Co.

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history of horween tanning co

While variety may be the spice of life, sometimes we need to find something wholesome and dependable–a staple if you will. I believe that this can be found in Horween leather.

So what is Horween leather? Where does it come from? What makes it such a staple in the boot community? 

Should you look specifically for Horween leather? To answer these questions, we’ll have to go back to where it all started. 

Horween Leather: A Brief History

Where Did It All Start?

If I’m honest, Horween Leather Co. had pretty humble beginnings. A guy who loved leather decided to share his love in a new country. Too basic for you? Let me elaborate….

Isidore Horween, the company’s founder, came to the US in 1893 to see the World’s Fair. A tanner by trade, Isidore set out to do what he did best in his new home, Chicago Illinois.

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Doing what he loved best, Isidore Horween made a name for himself in the leather industry. In 1905, Horween Leather Co. was founded, and the rest is history. 

What Is Horween Leather Co. All About? 

If you’re gonna make a company last, you’ve got to offer some value. Horween not only offers a valuable product, but they also stand on certain values that drive their company forward. Horween Leather Co. is and always has been passionate about three things: tradition, quality, and accessibility.

The Horween Tradition

Horween Leather Co. is all about tradition–they found a process that they love because, well, it works. Horween is one of the few remaining companies in the US that processes premium native hides from start to finish. 

Aside from discontinuing the use of outdated materials (like whale oil), the whole Horween leather making process has remained largely the same for the past century. 

Horween Quality

Horween Leather Co. is all about quality. When it comes to leather, they make the best of the best. There are no missed steps–they do their very best with every batch. They use the best hides, the best oils, the best waxes–they just use the best. 

Because of the natural resources that Horween uses, every sheet of leather is unique. 

Every hide is unique. Horween uses byproducts from the US meat industry to source their leathers. They receive full, hair on hides by the pallet from their suppliers. 

Each coloring is unique. Horween uses natural materials for creating their dyes and stains, and each batch is made and mixed by hand. Pretty sweet, right?

From tanning, to dyeing, to conditioning–the whole process has been beautifully mastered over more than 100 years in the leather business. These folks are masters in the leather industry. Many consider their products to be the gold-standard of leather. That’s just how good they are. 

Horween’s Accessibility

When you find a way to do what you love, and you do it well, you want to share it with the world. 

Not only does Horween Leather Co. bring a great product to the table, they also make it accessible to the consumer (that’s you and me). Brands around the world have been given the chance to give their take on products using the premium quality leather that Horween has to offer. 

Brands such as Thursday, Grant Stone, Allen Edmonds, Viberg, Wolverine, and more have partnered with Horween to offer fantastic boots to the consumer. 

What Is Horween Chromexcel Leather? 

Horween Chromexcel is Horween’s classic take on chrome-tanned leather. I feel almost guilty saying it like that. Basically, Horween Chromexcel is THE chrome-tanned leather. 

According to the Horween website, the specific tanning process for Chromexcel consists of 89+ separate processes and takes almost a full month to make each individual batch! 

After the hides have been dehaired and scraped down, the leather is brined to begin the initial preservation process. For Chromexcel, the brine is chrome salt based, making it a chrome-tanned leather—at least in part.

Because of the many natural ingredients used throughout the tanning process, Chromexcel is referred to as “combination tanned,” meaning it is composed of elements of both chrome and vegetable tanned leather. In other words, Horween uses both ancient and traditional methods for creating their flagship leather. You’re getting the best of both worlds.

The processes after the brining are what gives Horween Chromexcel its unique properties. 

The leather is sorted out by quality and thickness, and then begins the process of “hot stuffing.” This is where the leather gets all of its oils and waxes, giving it its unique pull-up qualities. For Chromexcel, ingredients like food-grade beef tallow and cosmetic-grade bee’s wax are used in the hot stuffing process. 

Because of the oils and waxes that are unique to Chromexcel, the leather has excellent water-resistance and ages extremely well. Scuffs and scratches generally fade away as oils and waxes are reintroduced to the surface of the leather as you wear it. 

Alongside its visual beauty, Horween Chromexcel also has the beauty of durability. A full-grain leather, Horween Chromexcel is thick and tough, 

Chromexcel is made with an eye for quality–guaranteeing a premium material.  

What is Horween Shell Cordovan Leather?

When something says it’s made of Shell Cordovan, it’s going to be expensive–-sometimes raising the retail price of an item up by 70%. So what is Shell Cordovan? And why the heck is it so pricey?

Currently, Horween Leather Co. is one of the few remaining Shell Cordovan producers in the USA. Horween Shell Cordovan is something of a premium material. This leather is typically found in higher-end, more formal footwear, such as dress boots

Shell Cordovan is taken from the hindquarters of a horse between the outer skin and the muscles of the buttocks. This leather is durable, crease resistant, and takes a vibrant shine when polished.

Because of its durability, the original Cordovan leather was used for the outward portions of armor and shields by the 7th Century Visigoths. 

After Horween established their own version of this already famous leather, it was briefly favored for work boots and leather tools, such as strops and hoses. Companies like Wolverine preferred Cordovan over other leathers for its unique toughness, and made boots such as their 1000 Miles featuring the famous leather. 

After recognizing it for its fine polish and rich colors, though, Horween began marketing their Cordovan for the production of dress shoes and dress boots. It stuck. 

My Top 3 Horween Leather Boots

1.  Thursday Vanguard

Rugged, traditional, USA made, and Horween Chromexcel leather—need I say more? This 1940’s style cap-toe service boot from Thursday is a beautiful piece of American heritage. 

The Vanguard is currently offered in 4 colors of Horween leather: Indigo, French Roast, and Color #8 in Horween Chromexcel, and Waxed Cocoa in Waxed Flesh Horween leather. 

The Vanguard is also offered in Thursday’s own Rugged and Resilient leathers, but at the asking price of $265, I’d recommend you go with the Horween–-it’s a better deal in my opinion. 

Thursday Vanguard

The Thursday Vanguard has some subtle design differences that make it more sophisticated than the super-popular Captain. Plus, the materials are next level in comparison, and the value for price is phenomenal for a USA-made boot.

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2. Grant Stone Brass

These robust moc-toes may not be manufactured in the US, but you can wear them with confidence knowing the leather is the best of the best—Horween Chromexcel. 

Looking for killer construction with an aesthetic that would make your grandpa proud? Try the Grant Stone Brass

Grant Stone Brass Boot

The Grant Stone Brass boot is a total beast. The construction and stitching is meticulous and the build quality is the best I’ve experienced. While I personally prefer a slightly slimmer style, there’s no denying that the Grant Stone Brass Boot is one of the best value-offers in boots today.

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3. Carmina Cordovan Balmoral 

On the higher end of the boot spectrum in terms of price, the Carmina Cordovan Balmoral features gorgeous Horween Shell Cordovan, calfskin lining, and Goodyear welt construction. 

These boots have a rather steep price at around $1000. While not a budget boot, the Horween Cordovan leather makes this boot a really beautiful thing, and if you’re looking for a high-end Cordovan dress boot to wear with your favorite suit, this is the one for you. 

Carmina Balmoral

Spanish boot-maker Carmina is famous for making some of the best cordovan leather footwear on the planet, including their Balmoral cap toe boot. The punched straight cap is beautifully subtle, great for pairing with a suit, slacks, or business casual outfit.

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Honorable Mention. Thursday Captain 

Thursday Boots Captain arizona adobe rugged and resilient leather 1
The famous Thursday Captains

Already a cult-classic, Thursday recently released a new member to their Captain family–Natural Horween Chromexcel. 

These boots are affordable, feature a 360 degree Goodyear welt, and have overall phenomenal construction. Because of the natural color, these boots will only get darker and richer in color as they age. 

While not yet offered in other colors of Horween Chromexcel, the tried-and-true classic in this premium material deserved a mention. If you’re looking for an affordable way to get your hands on some exquisite Horween leather and get a sweet pair of boots in the process, then this is the boot for you. 

Thursday Captain

The Thursday Captain is an excellent deal. Made with Thursday's Chrome leather from Le Farc tannery (often compared to Horween Chromexcel), these boots are still holding up well after five years of wear. When (if?) these ever wear out, I’ll be getting them again.

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Horween is great at what they do. They’re a staple in the leather industry, and a go-to in the boot community. They found a way to do something that they loved over a hundred years ago, and they continue to stick to it to this day. 

They bring their tradition and their quality to the consumer in an accessible way. Their unique tried and true age old processes make truly wonderful leathers. Horween Leather Co. continues to bring old-timey yet timeless classics like Chromexcel and Shell Cordovan to the market. 

They truly are masters in their trade.

Partnering with some awesome brands, Horween leather is just a click away from being on your feet. If you’d like to own and wear either of these Horween classic leathers, be sure to check out the recommended boots I linked above.


Is Horween leather waterproof?

No, but it’s darn close. Shell Cordovan has a natural resistance to water, giving it the advantage over other leathers. Chromexcel is a lot closer to water-proof, though, offering excellent water-resistance because of all of the oils and waxes that are saturated into the leather. 

That being said, I don’t recommend jumping into a lake with either on your feet, it’s just not made for that kinda thing and you’ll get wet.

What are the benefits of Horween Chromexcel?

Chromexcel has a reputation for its beautiful patina–in other words, the more you wear them, the prettier they will become. 

Because of the many oils and waxes that are in the leather, Chromexcel is a hearty, water-resistant, all around solid leather.

Is Horween Leather full-grain?

Yes, Horween Chromexcel is a premium full grain leather that has been chrome-tanned by the folks at Horween Leather Co. using tried and true hundred-year-old techniques. 

However, Shell Cordovan is not a full grain leather. Shell Cordovan is taken from the hide below the top grain. However, this does not negatively affect the quality of the leather, but instead creates a leather that is more durable and offers a better polish.

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Say hello to the last boot socks you'll need.
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Camel City Mill Lightweight Wool Work Sock

Made in the USA from Merino wool, these work socks really are something else in terms of quality. They feature compression through the arch and calf which helps your feet recover after a long day. Plus, because they're Merino wool, they're breathable and help reduce foot sweat.

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