Beneath the guard hairs of a beaver’s coat is an incredibly thick, soft fur. This undercoat became highly desirable by felt makers during the Renaissance because it produced the finest quality felt, known for a beautiful sheen and hard resilience. By 1580 the fashion for beaver felt hats was exploding but the European beaver had been trapped to near extinction in its Eastern European/Western Russian habitat.
Fortunately Canada teemed with Castor Canadensis, the North American cousin of the European beaver. The Vintage clothing trade was born in Canada when Natives traded in last year’s beaver pelt winter robes for iron pots and wool blankets. After a year or so of wear the guard hairs fell out of beaver pelts leaving the soft undercoat of fur – exactly what was wanted by European felt makers. Unfortunately, the supply of used beaver robes was not enough to keep up with demand. British, French, and Dutch colonies began enlisting Native trappers to supply beaver pelts. Claims to beaver territories set in motion the Beaver Wars (1610-1614), pitting Native groups against each other as coastal sources dwindled and trappers ventured further inland for their pelts.
By 1660, the Neutrals, a Native people living in what is present-day southwestern Ontario had been driven from their homeland, or assimilated by the Iroquois who had expanded their territory looking for beaver habitats. By 1667 the English had taken the Dutch colonies (New Amsterdam had been renamed New York), and the English soon skirted around French territory to set up the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) in 1670. All lands where rivers drained into Hudson Bay came under the HBC charter.
With England effectively controlling the beaver trade, London soon became known for its high quality felt hats, but that recognition came at a price. Unlike the used robes that had lost their guard hairs, raw pelts retained their guard hairs. A process had been developed in Russia called ‘carroting’ (because the fur turned orange in colour during the process), that treated the pelts with mercury nitrate to remove the guard hairs. Unfortunately, a side effect of this treatment also turned hatters mad from breathing the mercury vapour.
Throughout the late 17th and 18th centuries, beaver was used to make up every type of fashionable round hat, bicorn and tricorn, but by the 1790s, beaver supplies were beginning to noticeably dwindle. The Northwest Company, created west of the HBC in 1779, merged with the HBC in 1821. That same year George Simpson, the governor of the newly merged company, enacted conservation measures to preserve the beaver population. A quota was established that limited the number of pelts each trapper could take, and a moratorium was put on the purchase of cub and summer pelts.
Trappers turned to otter, which also bore a superior fur undercoat. Otter populations teemed along the west coast but their numbers soon dwindled as top hats became high fashion by the 1820s. Fortunately a new hat material was about to solve the problem of a depleted felt source – silk plush. Hats of felt had a deep, lustrous finish and a short pile, while silk plush featured a high, glossy finish. To imitate the stiffness of a beaver or otter felt hat, silk plush hats were made on hard forms of baked layers of shellac-soaked cheesecloth, linen, and flannel before being covered with the soft, black silk plush.
Fashion Myth – THS IS NOT A BEAVER HAT
There is an apocryphal story about the first silk plush hat appearing on the streets of London on January 15 or 16, 1797, worn by its creator J Hetherington. A crowd gathered to gawk at the shiny stovepipe on his head. According to one account the attention his hat brought got so out of hand that a child broke his arm among all the jostling, and Hetherington was arrested for disturbing public order. The Times reported the following day “Hetherington’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear…” It was a slow eventuality, but by 1850 silk plush had effectively displaced fur felt in the production of top hats.
Not only was the adoption of the silk plush top hat what ultimately saved the beaver and otter, although it took over a century for recovery of their populations, with the drop in demand for pelts for the fur felt trade, Russia no longer had use for a piece of real estate called Alaska. Russia was in debt and not being friendly with Britain because of the recently fought Crimean War, offered Alaska to the United States in 1859. The American Civil War tabled the deal until 1867 when the U.S. finally snatched up Alaska for 2 cents per acre.