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Faux Real

Genuine Leather and 200 Years of Inspired Fakes

By Robert Kanigel

Publication Year: 2010

What makes genuine leather genuine? What makes real things real? In an age of virtual reality, veneers, synthetics, plastics, fakes, and knockoffs, it's hard to know.

Over the centuries, men and women have devoted enormous energy to making fake things seem real. As early as the fourteenth century, fabric was treated with special oils to make it resemble leather. In the 1870s came Leatherette, a new bookbinding material. The twentieth century gave us Fabrikoid, Naugahyde, Corfam, and Ultrasuede. Each claims to transcend leather's limitations, to do better than nature itself—or at least to convince consumers that it does.

Perhaps more than any other natural material, leather stands for the authentic and the genuine. Its animal roots etched in its pores and in the swirls of its grain, leather serves as cultural shorthand for the virtues of the real over the synthetic, the original over the copy, the luxurious over the shoddy and second-rate. From formica, vinyl siding, and particle board to cubic zirconium, knockoff designer bags, and genetically altered foods, inspired fakes of every description fly the polyester pennant of a brave new man-made world. Each represents a journey of scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial innovation. Faux Real explores this borderland of the almost-real, the ersatz, and the fake, illuminating a centuries-old culture war between the authentic and the imitative.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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Part I: Imitating the Inimitable

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Chapter 1. Material World

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pp. 3-23

It was 1963 and they were offering a new material to the world. No single enterprising hero was behind it, no one glib-tongued sales- man; it was they. Men like Johnny Piccard, a young chemist, scion of one of America's early ballooning families, his deep voice and fertile ideas booming through the halls of the Experimental Station. And Charlie ...

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Chapter 2. “Let the Good Work Go On”

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pp. 24-44

Little boxes. Once they held engraved calling cards, ladies' fans, gold tie studs. Shelly Foote, curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., presents them to me in a shallow cardboard tray pulled from the Smithsonian's vaults. As I open their lids, fluffy satin or velvet cushions rise up to meet my touch. ...

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Chapter 3. Leather Alive

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pp. 45-68

At noon on a late summer's day in 1834, 19-year-old Richard Henry Dana left behind the frock coat and kid gloves of a Harvard undergraduate, arrived at the Boston docks with his sea chest packed for a two-year voyage, and shipped out as an ordinary sailor aboard the small brig Pilgrim, determined to effect "an entire change of life." In his epic memoir, ...

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Chapter 4. Bizarre Effects

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pp. 69-84

It's yucky stuff, I might as well tell you. This particular swatch of upholstery material is supposed to remind you of a palomino, with its golden coat, maybe one that's just clambered up from the river, thick hair clinging to its body, wet and matted. COMANCHE, it's called, and it's made of vinyl. Back in the 1950s, they used it to cover the chairs and bench seats ...

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Chapter 5. One Nature

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pp. 85-94

In the fall of 1927, Wallace Hume Carothers, a 31-year-old organic chemist, was lured from Harvard University by Du Pont. Carothers, product of a tiny Presbyterian college in the American Midwest, had gone on to get a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and was, at the time Du Pont found him, teaching chemistry at Harvard. There he impressed everyone ...

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Chapter 6. Nothing Like Leather

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pp. 95-111

By the 1880s machines were already taking big bites of the world's work, but they ran not on electricity or gasoline but waterpower or steam. Large, centrally located engines transmitted power to individual machines, like lathes or looms, through long, snaking belts, looped over pulleys, whirring at three or four thousand feet per minute. Most of these belts ...

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Chapter 7. “All Shortcomings Have Been Eliminated”

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pp. 112-150

"I have been acclaimed as the inventor of Corfam," he says. "I am not." At the age of 83, John Piccard speaks Truth as a train of declarations and assertions. He looks like a Victorian patriarch, with a long white beard and a full head of straight white hair. He speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, forswearing contractions. He has a story to tell and he tells it. ...

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Chapter 8. Top Grain

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pp. 151-170

A nondescript trade show hall in the exurbs beyond Boston's outer beltway. Shoe retailers and shoe sales reps gather here for their twice-yearly show, talking up men's tasseled slip-ons, stilettos and Mary Janes, chukkas, sandals, and funny-looking footwear only a clown could love. Volleyball shoes, orthopedic shoes, brogues, shoes fit for the dance floor or the nursing ward. ...

Part II: Inspired Fakes

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Chapter 9. What Nature Had in Mind

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pp. 173-198

The glint in the distance, the burst of brightness against the dry scrubby plain, could be flocks of sheep or cactus leaves. The sheep are familiar enough puffs of white. But when clusters of native cacti, with leaves like flat plates reminiscent of Triceratops armor, catch the Mediterranean sun like mirrors, they, too, gleam white. We are in the valley of the river Tirso, ...

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Chapter 10. Crocodile Dreams

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pp. 199-235

We are 30 blocks south of Central Park, on East 26th Street, border country between higher-profile Manhattan neighborhoods, a little nondescript. On one side a shop offers $10 pedicures. On the other is a parking lot, its chain link fence topped with razor wire. In between, on the site of a defunct butcher shop, is Moo Shoes. A cat lounges on its round bed. ...

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Chapter 11. Vera Pelle

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pp. 236-246

He comes from five generations of leather people. When he was 16 he worked in the basement of his dad's Leather District shop in Boston, sorting skins. His name is Howard Shrut, and his company, Shrut & Asch, he calls "the only domestic supplier of kidskin in the US" still left. Once, it employed 30 people. "I used to love to go into a shoe store and say, 'That's ...

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Sources and Acknowledgments

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pp. 247-274

While the research for Faux Real rests in part on a familiar bibliographical edifice of published books and articles, it draws at least as heavily on inter- views, archival records, private papers, and tours of industrial facilities. It relies on journal articles, technical glossaries, U.S. government reports, and scholarly dissertations; on ads, annual reports, brochures, popular ...


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pp. 275-288

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205596
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221329

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2010