The Fur Trade
The Beaver Hat
Making a Beaver Hat

A Brief History of the Beaver Trade

The Role of Beaver in the European Fur Trade

 Prized for their warmth, luxurious  texture, and  the  longevity of fur as a material, furs have played a large role  in clothing people since the beginning of  human  history.  For everyday use or costume and decoration, furs  have been used for the  production of outterware such as  coats and cape, garment and shoe lining, a variety of head  coverings, and ornamental trim and trappings. 

 European and Asian trade in felts and fur stretched back  centuries, if not millennium.  Depending on the supply of  animals, Russian, Northern Scandinavia, and Central Asia  were the major supplies of this trade through the 15th  century.
Furs were supplied to the Mediterranean and Middle East through Constantinople.  This trade can be traced back to the Classical Greek and Roman periods, and through to the modern era.  In the ninth and tenth centuries, Scandinavian and Viking Rus traders traded to Northern and central Europe a variety of furs including: marten, reindeer, bear, otter, sable, ermine, black and white fox, and beaver.[1]  There was a substantial population of the European Beaver throughout northern Europe and Siberia, until they became severely depleted in the 17th century due to over-hunting.  (photo courtesy of http://abob.libs.uga.edu/book/beavlink.html)

From fur pelts three primary materials used in clothing production can be derived:  the full pelt (fur and skin), leather or suede (the skin with all fur removed, and felts (removing the fur  from the pelt, and processing it with heat and pressure to  form a piece of pliable material).  Due to the strength and  malleable quality of felts, they were used extensively in hat making.  The physical structure of beaver fur predisposes it to the felting process, making it a highly desirable fur for felt production.  (photo of beaver fur hat courtesy of www.chichensterinc.com/FurHats.htm)

 Wool felting was known "as early as Homer and as late as Caesar, felt was used for cheap protection against arrows and as padding under heavy metal armour."[2] It has been suggested that it was in Constantinople that wool felting techniques were first a
pplied to beaver fur.[3]  From there, knowledge of felting spread north, to Russia, along trade routes.  J. F. Crean suggests that wool felting likely spread to western Europe after the sack of Kiev by the Tarters in 1240, when artisans fled west.  However, beaver felting  techniques did not diffuse westward, and the beaver felting industry  remained centralized in Russia until the late 17th century. With a monopoly on both supply and industry, the Russians developed and refined techniques for processing beaver fur.  Essential to the felting process was a step known as combing, which separated the beaver's guard hairs from the downy under wool that was desired for felts.  The careful guarding of this trade secret helped to maintain the Russian  monopoly. (photo of felted beaver hat courtesy of  www.pilgrimhall.org)

 Beaver pelts could be made into either full-fur or felted-fur  hats. Evidence of felted beaver hats in western Europe can be  found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th  century: "A MERCHANT was there with a forked beard / In motley, and high on his horse he sat, / Upon his head a Flandrish beaver hat."[4]  Beaver hats were imported into England from Holland and Spain until the 15th century, after which England was able to obtain beaver felts from Russia, via Holland, and manufacture the actual hats within the British Isles.

Nonetheless, George Stubbes reported in his Anatomie of  Abuses that beaver hats were sold at 40 shillings a piece  and were "fetched from beyond the sea,"[5]  indicating that the British industry was not, or was not able, to  completely control the domestic market.

Unfortunately, due to population depletion of the European beaver, by 1600 nearly all exports of beaver fur and felts from Russia stopped.

The 17th Century and The Opening of the North American Fur Trade

The Fur Trade in North America

  Fortunately, although perhaps not for the  American  beaver, the depletion of European  beaver  populations coincided with the  establishment of  European colonies in North  America.  England,  France, and the Netherlands  had all established  North American colonies by  the early-to-mid 17th  century.  Although beaver  populations could be found all  over North America,  beaver in the northern parts of  the continent contained the fuller coats that were more desirable in the fur trade.  As a result, French Canada, British holdings in the Hudson Bay, and the Dutch New Netherlands (later, the English colony of New York) played key roles in establishing the North American fur trade.  Because there were no physical differences between the north American beaver (Castor canadensis) and the European beaver (Castor fiber), the American beaver was an easy substitute for the near-extinct European beaver.   (image courtesy of www.iroquoisdemocracy.pdx.edu)

In North America, French, Dutch, and English, all found ways of working with Native Americans to expand their access to beaver sources.  Both the superior ecological familiarity, and well-developed hunting and trapping skill sets of native hunters were essential to providing a steady supply of beaver from North America. Within the colony itself, trade functioned as both an economic exchange and a means of establishing alliances between Europeans and their Native American neighbors.

The exchange of goods inhabited a realm that tied two cultures together economically, symbolically and politically.  An open market for European goods in the colonies, and the supply of raw material from the colonies to Europe, helped drive the colonial economy.  The introduction of steel tools and gun powder weaponry transformed indigenous American society.  The Europeans, on the other hand, heavily relied upon their Native American neighbors for access to American resources, such as the beaver.  (image courtesy of www.lcmm.org/site/harbor/resource_pages/timeline/contact/exploration.htm)

Along with textiles, cooking pots, and guns, the European item that proved to be most influential on indigenous populations was the spread of their diseases.  Bacterial isolation from the Eur-Asian continent rendered Native Americans' immune systems defenseless to common Europeans diseases such as small pox and chicken pox, the bubonic plague, influenza, malaria, diphtheria, as well as venereal diseases. The spread of disease precipitated the Great Dying and decimated indigenous populations across North and South America.

The political alliances and economic forces that resulted from this trade proved to have lasting environmental and social impacts on the land and peoples of North America.  Competition for access to beaver lead to warfare between nations, such as in the case of the Iroquois defeat of the Huron in 1649.  Similarly, indigenous-European alliances entangled native American populations in a number European affairs and conflicts, including Leisler's Rebellion, the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), and the American Revolution.

The North American Furs in Europe

In Europe, north American beaver pelts flooded the European market.  Pelts were generally imported into either England or France, where some pelts were sold in the domestic market, and some pelts were exported to other parts of Europe for sale.  As a buyer of English and French pelts, Russia played a large role in this regard.  Imported pelts were sorted into three categories: castor gras, castor sec, and bandeauCastor gras pelts had been worn by Native American trappers for the hunting season and as a result of the sweat and body oil, were more pliable and easier to felt.  They were also the most expensive pelts.  Castor sec referred to pelts that had been scraped clean, but never worn, and required some extra work to prepare them for felting.  Bandeau pelts were scraped, but not necessarily clean, and could be partially rotted or decayed upon arrival in Europe.  Although known in Europe by the end of the seventeenth century, the combing technique developed by the Russians helped prepare the castor sec pelts by separating the desired beaver wool from the outer guard hairs, making them more easily feltable.   In general, the Russian market served as an outlet for pelts not sold on the French or English domestic markets.   Until the combing process was known in Western Europe, the French and English were able to export substantial quantities of castor sec to be combed in Russia, and then re-import the combed pelts.  Even after the knowledge of combing became more wide spread in Western Europe, meaning that the less expensive castor sec could be combed locally, the Russian market was able to purchase excess numbers of the more expensive castor gras, that had been passed up domestically in favor of the castor sec.  Beaver felts, made from beaver pelts, could be manufactured domestically in France or England, or imported from Russia.

 Beaver felts were used to  make beaver hats.  Hats, like other forms of dress,  played a large role in reflecting one's social  identity.  The shape and style of one's hat indicated to a passerby one's profession, wealth, and social rank and position.  Color,  shape, and material all carried specific meaning.  In Ecclesiastical heraldry, for  example, a red, wide-brimmed hat clearly  indicated that its wearer was a cardinal, and  interactions required a specific social protocol.  In  seventeenth century England, the shape and style of one's hat reflected political and religious affiliation.  Due  to the expense of a beaver hat, being able to purchase one made a visual statement about one's wealth and social status. 
(photo courtesy of http://dappledphotos.blogspot.com/2005/11/capelli-e-galeri.html )

Until the latter half of the seventeenth century, makers of beaver hats were dependent on the very last of the supply of the European beaver.  In the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the influx of beaver furs from the new world increased the sheer number of beaver hats that could be made, due the increased supply of raw material.  Hats made exclusively from beaver wool, or castors, were the most expensive and of the highest quality.   What seems to have lowered the price of beaver hats was less the increased supply of pelts, than the production of demi-castor, or half-beavers.  Demi-castor hats could be mixed with wool or hare fur, to produce a hat that was lower in quality, similar in style, and less expensive in price.  The production of demi-castors was further facilitated by the development of carroting, which made hare fur felt more easily after the application of mercury nitrate. (image of 18th and 19th century variations of beaver hats from: National Archives of Canada / C-17338, courtesy of: http://www.canadianheritage.org/reproductions/10082.htm)

 In the seventeenth and eighteenth  centuries, beaver hats were  produced for sale domestically in  the French and British markets,  as well as for export.  The French  domestic market included  military  and naval contracts, as  well as consumer products sold on  the general market.  The majority  of their exports were shipped to  French colonies in the Caribbean,  Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Spanish  South America.[6]  Britain's  exportation of beaver hats picked  up in the eighteenth century, after  the acquisition of much of the  Hudson Bay Territory of French  Canada following the War of  Spanish succession In the 1720's,  the British exported to their own  Caribbean colonies in Jamaica:  two dozen beaver hats and one  dozen half beaver hats); three  dozen half beavers to Bilbao; three  dozen beaver hats to Barbados;  and three dozen beaver hats and  three dozen felts to Calais.  By the  1730's, Britain "exported formerly by the dozens but now by the hundreds of beaver and half beaver hats to the British West Indies."[7]  On the European continent, Britain was able to infiltrate the Iberian market.  From 1700 to 1750 the revenue from beaver hats shipped to Spain and Portugal, and then on to their colonies, increased from £44,000 to over £263,000.[8]  Of Britain's fur exports, 85% were comprised of beaver hats, 45% of which were exchanged with Spain and Portugal for bullion.  Additional evidence regarding the sale of beaver hats in Europe demonstrates greater English sales in Holland and Germany, with French advantages in Switzerland, the Baltic, and smaller markets in Spain and Italy.[9]

From the Perspective of World History

When following the path of the American beaver pelt, a complex network of trans-Atlantic trade networks emerge.  In the wilds of North America, beaver trapping contributed to shifting economic and political alliances between Europeans and Native Americans.  The effects of the trade came to have profound social, demographical and environmental impacts on the various inhabitants of seventeenth and eighteenth century North America.  Closely tied into the economic prosperity and viability of the colonies, exchange of furs sustained the colonies' economic systems.  Further, the transport of furs across the Atlantic and through to foreign markets, such as Russia and Amsterdam, contributed to the enrichment of the shipping industries of the Atlantic World.  Once in Europe, the beaver scattered in several different directions.  Some pelts were permanently exported across the continent, some consumed on the home market, and some exported to Russia for further processing prior to manufacture into finished products.  Once the furs entered the hatting industries of France or Britain, some were reserved for local consumption, while still others were prepared for export.  Traded through each mother country's colonial networks as well as abroad, hats were exported across the continent and back across the Atlantic to the Americas.  It is not at all inconceivable to trace the path of a beaver pelt from British Canada, to England, through to Russia via Amsterdam, back to Britain, onto Spain, and further forward, as a hat, to the Spanish colonies in South and Central America. 

The beaver exchange connected the North American and European markets through the supply and demand of one fortuitously (although not for its own sake) fuzzy animal.

[1] Erik Wolf, "The Fur Trade", in The People Without History, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982), 158

J. F. Crean, "Hats and the Fur Trade,  The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 28, no. 3, (August, 1962), 376

[3] Ibid, 376

[4] http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext00/cbtls12.txt

[5] Michael Harrison, The History of the Hat, (London: William Clowes and Sons, Limited, 1960), 104

Michael Sonenscher, The Hatters of Eighteenth Century France, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987), 33

[7] E. E. Rich, History of the Hudson Bay Company,
1670-1870, with a Foreward by Wiston Churchill, (London: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1958-59), 530

[8] Rich, History of the Hudson Bay Company, 530

[9] Thomas Wien, "Exchange patterns in the European Market for North America Furs and Skins, 1720-1760,  in Partners in Furs: A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay 1600-1870, edited by Daniel Francis and Toby Morantz, (Canada: Mc Gill Queen's University Press, 1983): 26

Full List of Sources Used for This Page

Beck, Egerton.  "The Ecclesiastical Hat in Heraldry and Ornament Before the        
            Beginning of the 17th Century, 
The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 22,
            no. 120 (March 1913): 338-334

Chaucer, Geoffry.  Canterbury Tales, available:                                                                               http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext00/cbtls12.txt

Clark, Fiona.  Hats.  London: The Anchor Press Ltd, 1992

Crean, J. F.  “Hats and the Fur Trade.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and
            Political Science
28, no. 3, (August, 1962): 373-386

Curtin, Philip D.  Cross-Cultural Trade in World History.  Cambridge: Cambridge     
           University Press, 1984

-Francis, Daniel and Toby Morantz.  Partners in Furs: A History of the Fur Trade in             Eastern James Bay 1600-1870.  Canada: Mc Gill Queen's University     
            Press, 1983)

Grant, Hugh.  "Revenge of the Paris Hat: The European Craze for Wearing Headgear             Had a Profound Effect on Canadian History."  Beaver (December 1988-    
            January 1989): 37-44

Harrison, Michael.  The History of the Hat.  London: William Clowes and Sons,                     Limited, 1960

Jansson, Maija. “The Hat is No Expression of Honor.” Proceedings of the      
            American Philosophical Society
133, no. 1 (March 1989): 26-34

Phillips, Paul Chrisler.  The Fur Trade, Volume I.  Norman, OK: University of                         Oklahoma Press, 1961

Rich, E. E.  "Russia and the Colonial Fur Trade."  The Economic History Review 7,
            no. 3  (1955)

-Rich, E. E. The History of the Husdon Bay Company, 1670-1870, with a Foreward
            by Wiston Churchill
London: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1958-59

Sonenscher, Michael.  The Hatters of Eighteenth Century France.  Berkeley, CA:                     University of California Press, 1987

White, Richard.  The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great 
            Lakes Region, 1650-1815
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

Wolf, Erik.  "The Fur Trade" in The People Without History. Berkeley, CA:                             University of California Press, 1982

Websites Consulted:

-Hat Shapers http://www.hatshapers.com/Felting%20Info.htm

-The White Oak Society Website, http://www.whiteoak.org/learning/furhat.htm

-The Felt Lady http://yurtboutique.com/beaver.htm