When it comes to human skin, we typically don’t think of it as a material to make things in the same way that one might make a jacket with sheep’s wool or using the leather from a cow to make a nice pair of shoes. Usually, we think of human skin as just that—our skin. However, throughout human history, we as a species have still managed to utilize this human organ for strange, bizarre purposes.
1. Book Bindings
One of the most surprisingly common historical practices regarding human skin has been the choice to bind books using human skin throughout human history. Dating back to at least the 17th century the procedure is so prevalent it even has its own term (and Wikipedia article!) “Anthropodermic Bibliopegy.” Some of the choices of these book bindings sometimes even seem to be done out irony such as the binding of many Anatomy texts in human skin, intact female nipples on tomes of erotica or the usage of the skin of an African-American man to bind Lincoln, the Unknown. However, sometimes the reasons were more sentimental, people would have the skins of close friends and family used to bind books, and some famous individuals offered to have their skin used to bind editions of their biographies. (Which can seem like a neat idea, actually having a “piece” of that person while reading the biography.) Many of these books still exist today and can be found in the collections at Harvard and Brown University.
It’s inarguable that the Nazis committed horrible atrocities and terrible acts upon innocent people during the Second World War. One of the products of their reign of terror is the production of a lampshade made of human skin. Located near Weimar, Germany the Buchenwald concentration camp was horrendous—even by Nazi concentration camp standards. The leader of the camp, Karl-Otto Koch was reportedly incredibly corrupt and terrible. His wife, Ilse Koch, has often had worse treatment nicknamed “The Witch of Buchenwald” among the most mild of her nicknames. Reportedly, Frau Koch would hand pick tattooed Jews for which the skin would be prepared as lampshades for her own personal use. Though many of these are unconfirmed, eyewitnesses have claimed she had done these things and human remains such as shrunken heads and human skins have since been found at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
3. Human Leather Clothing
You might assume that the practice of making clothing out of human leather is an entirely outdated and antiquated practice that no longer exists today. Well, if that’s the case, you’d be wrong. A recently formed United Kingdom based company, “[Hu]manLeather,” is promoting itself as producing the “finest leather known — human leather.” At this time, the company produces shoes, belts and wallets for purchase—all of which price above $14,000 USD. Apparently, there’s a waiting list too, which might be even creepier, because that means people want to wear the flesh of other human beings. But at least one thing is certain, unlike some people, [Hu]manLeather only gets their leather from consenting parties.
4. A War Drum
It seems strange enough to use the skin of a once living human being as the head of a drum. It’s even weirder when you ask for it to be your own skin. Bohemian (modern day Czech Republic) soldier Jan Žižka z Trocnova a Kalicha was a well-renowned military commander during the Battle of Grunwald and the Hussite Wars which occurred in the late 14th and early 15th centuries surrounding the Protestant Reformation in Europe at the time. Though on the winning side of both these wars, in 1423 the Hussites experienced inner conflict and erupted into a civil war. Jan, who had contracted the Plague, was dying and as his last wish requested his men flay and tan his body, then have it fitted upon a drum so that he could lead his men into battle even after death.
Dr. Scott Darling is a dermatologist and owner of the Kansas City Skin & Vein Center based in Kansas City, MO. A fan of the weird history of skin, and obviously skin care, Dr. Darling also sits on several boards and is board certified in vein care.
Photo Credit: Jo Andre Johansen (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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