The Fur Trade
The Beaver Hat
Making a Beaver Hat

Beaver Hats and 17th Century English Society

Hats and headdress have long served as symbols of social status and position.  As at other times in human history, in the early modern period hats were used to designate military statues, social rank and position, various professions, religious deference, and political affiliation.  Within Catholic religious orders alone, the shape, style, and material of one's hat was a visual indication of one's position within the Holy Mother Church.  In court society the wearing, or not wearing, of a head covering was tied up into rigid rules of protocol, and varied from court to court.  For example, in 17th century England, full dress, including a hat, was required in the presence of the king.  In Russia however, removal of one's hat in front of the czar was appropriate etiquette and demonstrated respect.  By the seventeenth century, varying levels of hat and dress protocol had become so complex that James I of England, and IV of Scotland, established the position of Master of Ceremonies to instruct all visiting ambassadors on courtly protocol. courtly protocol. [1]

England's 17th century was characterized by massive changes.  The English Civil War (1641-1649) pitted countryman against countryman in a struggle between the parliamentarians and the royalists.  A religious battle as much as a political one, the brought out the tensions and divisions within the Anglican Church, culminating Puritan Revolt and Oliver Cromwell's austere Commonwealth (1649-1660).  The Restoration of Charles II and James II followed the fall of the Commonwealth, only to be overturned yet again by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the handing over of the 
English throne to King and Queen William and Mary of Orange.  Across the Atlantic, England had invaded and occupied Ireland, and began to more actively pursue the establishment of colonies and the first plantations in the New World. 

 While hats had always played a role of reflecting social distinction, in the 17th century, dress and headdress were adopted to reflect specific political and religious affiliations.  In the beginning of this period, the high and nearly brimless of the Elizabethan period receded as a fashion in favor of the lower, wide brimmed hat.  This transition is further reflected in the gradual lowering of the high, stiff Elizabethan collar.  ("Queen Elizabeth"  by Isaac Oliver, courtesy of http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/elizface.htm).  The high collar greatly inhibited the wearing of a widely brimmed hat as the brim would impact any time the wearer tilted their head to the side or back.  

It has been suggested that this fashion change was influenced by the popular spread of Swedish military dress during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), in which the English soldiers would have had contact with their fellow Swedish Protestants beginning in the 1630s.  Swedish military dress suggested a certain fluidity of movement.  The  blooming  pantaloons, blousy, ruffled shirts, floppy turned down boots, and of course the cavalier hat, all reflected a looseness of stature and a  military swagger. (image courtesy of http://www.strategos.demon.co.uk/tywhome).  J. F. Crean describes, "the wide brim of the cavalier's hat almost presupposes beaver felt: its broad brim was based on the shape-holding qualities and resilience peculiar to beaver felt." [2]

At this time, the North American trade in beaver pelts had not begun in earnest.  Hatters
were dependent on the near extinct supply of European beaver from the northern most parts of Russia and Scandinavia.   The resultant high expense meant that beaver hats were extremely costly and generally worn only by the wealthiest of classes.  Cavalier hats were generally decorated with ribbon or billowing plumes, to further extend the movement quality.  Gracefully swept off the head in the course of a bow, or "making the leg,"  the cavalier's hat embodied a sense of fluidity and languorousness. One can see here in a painting by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1635, courtesy of http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/dyck/), Charles I adopted cavalier dress during his reign.  During the English Civil War, royalist forces adopted the name "cavalier"  as a means of association with the king.   

Although beaver fur helped to provide stability and strength to the brim of the cavalier hat, there were limits to the tensile strength of beaver felt.  Cocking, or folding up one or both sides of, the hat helped counteract the inevitable forces of gravity.  In Frans Hals' "The Laughing Cavalier" (1624, oil on canvas, The Wallace Collection, London), one can see the cavalier's hat with the brim cocked in the front, and another example of the lower collar that had come into style.  The bi-corner and tri-corner hats are further example of cocked hats. (image courtesy of http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/history/virtual/portrait/cavalier.jpg)

The somber Puritan dress of 17th century reformers was in part a reaction against the
sumptuous costume of the royalist cavaliers. In terms of shape, these hats were the precursor to the top hat.  Tall, with a small flat or rolled brim, they were stiff, waterproof, and extremely durable.  Within a larger international context, the distinctly different hat was also in part a reaction to the French Catholic of the cavalier style.  Hugh Grant explains, "the sober Puritan hat - a steeped crown with a stiff brim and little ornamentation - which better reflected the ethics of frugality and industry." [3]  Religiously, the covering of one's head reflected both respect of the divine, and deference in the presence of God.  As a social trend, this practice became increasingly wide spread in the 17th century. (image courtesy of http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/enlightened_elegance/head.htm )

 Despite the symbolic reflection of "frugality and industry,  the cost of beaver hats severely restricted the consumer market.  Although beaver hats would come down in price after the influx of North American beaver pelts in the last part of the 17th century, and developments in hare felting that would produce demi-castor hats of higher quality in the 18th century, beaver hats were nonetheless very expensive throughout the 1600s.  Author of Anatomy of Abuses, Philip Strubbs listed the cost of a beaver hat at 40 shillings in 1583. [4]  Adjusted to the 2005 retail price index, this would be about £359.15 in today's prices. [5]  A 1661 quote of 45 shillings for a beaver hat would be £238.23. [6]  The difference may reflect the beginning of the influx of beaver pelts through France from New Canada.  However, even taking into account the lowered price of the beaver hat from 1583 to 1661, the high cost would have prevented this commodity from being available to the majority of English citizens. (image courtesy of http://www.whiteoak.org/learning/furhat.htm)

The end of the Commonwealth and Restoration of the monarchy witnessed a return to cavalier fashion.  However, despite the temporary resurgence of cavalier styles, the 18th century was dominated by variations of the Puritan tall hat, and the cocked style beaver.  Although the full-beaver castor hat was desired for its high quality, the development of carroting permitted the creation of higher quality demi-castor hats (part coney, part beaver).  In addition to the demi-castor, the beaver hat faced competition from an increasing straw hat market, and the growing popularity of wigs.  Historian Fiona Clark has suggested that the shift from the wide-brimmed cavalier hat to the cocked bi or tri-corner, was in part adopted to prevent the wearer from overheating, as the result of wearing both a wig and a hat. [7]  Despite competition from lower quality hats, hats created from other materials, and wigs, the beaver hat maintained its popularity through the 18th century and into the 19th, when beaver populations in North America finally experienced the same fate as the near extinct beaver populations of Europe.  (beaver  bi-corner hat courtesy of www.diggerhistory.info/pages-uniforms/aussie-naval.htm)


[1] Maija Jansson, “The Hat is No Expression of Honor,” Proceedings of the       American Philosophical Society, Vol. 133, No. 1 (March 1989), 28

[2] J. F. Crean, “Hats and the Fur Trade,” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. 28, No. 3, (August, 1962), 379

[3] Hugh Grant, “Revenge of the Paris Hat; the European Crave for Wearing Headgear Had a Profound Effect on Canadian History,” The Beaver, (December 1988-January 1989), 38

[4] Fiona Clark, Hats, (London: The Anchor Press Ltd, 1992), 10

[5] Lawrence H. Officer, "Comparing the Purchasing Power of Money in Great Britain from 1264 to Any Other Year Including the Present" Economic History Services, 2001.  http://www.eh.net/hmit/ppowerbp/

[6] Michael Harrison, The History of the Hat, (London: William Clowes and Sons, Limited, 1960), 124

[7] Clark, 12

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

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

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