Fur in History: A Quick Overview

Another repeat. I’m still on the road.

So there I was, trotting along under the January stars, pleased that I had found my fur-lined winter hat, and my fur neck-piece, and my fur muff, and thinking about fur, who wore fur, fur in art, and realized that I have not yet seen a book about the history of fur. The North American fur trade, yes, lots and lots of books, because my early childhood was spent at a place where two major rivers and multiple trading trails crossed, trade routes that predated Europeans by quite a while. So I grew up reading about fur trappers and beaver and that sort of thing. But what about fur in world history? Fur is a no-no for some people today, although that seems to be changing a little, and no one seems to shed tears over lining a hat with rabbit, or using rabbit fur to make felt hats. Back in the day, before central heat, fur meant survival and was one of the most important trade items around. Fur carried status, even squirrel and other “low-class” furs.

As you can imagine, western Europe became “trapped out” relatively quickly, at least of easy-to-catch, high quality animals. Squirrels, rabbits, and others never totally disappeared, but hunting for prestige species became a highly restricted privilege. In some cases, the right to hunt was more important than having a usable pelt (like fox hunting, for example). But people still wanted and needed furs, and dog and cat fur are not exactly prestige, or ideal for warmth. Cat in particular sheds too badly (seriously. Worse than rabbit, if you can believe it.)

Russia became the prime fur source. Going back to the 800s-900s, the pagan Bulgars and other Slavic peoples trapped and hunted marten and other weasels, foxes, badger, squirrels, arctic hare, and anything with a really good, thick pelt in attractive colors. Fur, wax, and honey were the main export items that passed through Novgorod and Kiev west and south, and later just south through the Mongols to the Ottomans and to China. Otter fur, highly prized in China, bought other luxuries and was one of the few things besides silver that the Chinese would accept in trade. It was otter fur that lured the Russians into North America as far as San Francisco, and that would lead to American and British ships coming to near blows over possession of California. The Stroganov family, of later recipe fame, obtained a Russian crown monopoly on Siberian fur sales that propelled them to high social and political rank.

Most Russian furs passed through the Novgorod kontor of the Hanseatic League, over the Baltic to Lübeck, Rostock, Hamburg, and Danzig, then out to London, Paris, and other places. Amber from the Baltic coast joined the furs as a wonder of the far north, easy to transport and highly prized. Squirrel fur appears in many paintings, and I would not be the least surprised if the fur trim on the Mennonite preacher’s jacket in Rembrandt’s famous paining were squirrel.

Look closely at his jacket. The original is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

So fur traveled from Russia west, south, and east. Once in Europe, sumptuary laws restricted who could wear what sort of pelt. Ermine is the most famous, in part because ermine (winter-pelt weasels) are rather easy to identify from art:

“Portrait of a Young Man with an ermine-collar coat” You can see the individual tail-tips. New Orleans Museum of Art

Gustav III of Sweden. How many tails can you count?

Other ranks wore wildcat, or fox, or squirrel. Squirrel pelts formed a major export item for Muscovy and later Russia after 1300. Beaver was also popular, to the point that beaver were trapped out (not enough left to be worth commercial exploitation) by the 1500s, which was one reason why Europeans were so thrilled to discover North America’s larger, thicker beaver pelts. The farther north you go, the more desirable pelts are (southern beaver fetch low prices compared to Canadian animals). Muskrat, deer hides, raccoon, and everything else was fair game. Badger and coyote fur do not get icy when they are damp, so they are prime furs for hoods.

Military uniforms used fur, most notably on hats and on the coats, called pelisse, that light cavalry hussars wore over one shoulder. Hungarian hussars sported enormous furs, and it was a sign of nobility and rank as well as something warm.

Deer hides served as currency in the British colonies, thus leading to the slang term “buck” for the US dollar. Buffalo hides, not fur per se, made amazingly warm and heavy coats, but industrial demand for leather outpaced the fur demand.

Even in the 20th century, fashion rules dictated that younger people wear rabbit and muskrat, while women wear other furs. Sable, a member of the weasel family like ermine, provided one of the hard-currency exports of the Soviet Union, and Siberian furs are considered premier, the darker the better. Today, some fur species are raised on farms, while others have fallen out of fashion, at least in the US and parts of Europe.

Fur remains a luxury item, although rabbit fur is quite inexpensive. In places like the Soviet Union and Communist China, where fur for hats and gloves remains a necessity in winter, one does not inquire too closely what an unusual pelt might have come from. Dog fur can be quite warm and durable, after all.

16 thoughts on “Fur in History: A Quick Overview

  1. I have a thigh length sleveless moose coat, for hunting end of season.
    Guess i should have saved those ermine hides, little chicken killers.

  2. I was taught that for prime eating you bucher rabbit at three months, and for prime fur wait until it’s full-grown (six-eight months, depending on breed) and never when it’s shedding because a pelt that is shedding will keep shedding. (Things learned in 4-H.) Also, temperarures at the time of fur growth will change the color fur grows in at, so plan your fur rabbit breeding for the shedding of the baby coat when it’s cool but not cold for the ideal pelts.

  3. My aunt was a professional tailor, trained to work with furs and leather. One time a woman brought in a full-length sable coat that she had inherited. She wanted it cut down to three-quarters length, with the remnant made into a muff, The sable was so dark that you had to ruffle the fur to see any brown, and so dense you couldn’t see the leather through the fur. Incredible.

  4. I’ve thought about collecting the hair from brushing our St. Bernards, spinning it into yarn, and (after fullering and other omitted steps) making sweaters.
    It would be softer than most wools, for certain. And darned 😉 warm.

    (I was informed that this was not nearly as good an idea for a Christmas gift as I believed.)

    • People do spin dog fur — most often mixed with wool, as most firs are smoother and slipperier than wool, which makes spinning g a good yarn that holds together more difficult.

      I was asked to spin the fur of Afghan hounds once, so the Afghan breeders association could knit and then raffle off an “Afghan Afghan. Unfortunately the people who asked had (as is typical) completely u realistic ideas about how long this would take a Ed therefore how much the spinner would need to be paid. (People who have never spun — or knitted, for that matter — seem to think an entire project only takes a few hours,)

  5. Thanks for the history lesson. Not fur, per se, but horsehide was for many years specified for aircraft seats for the military…

  6. Opossum furs were used in America in the 1800s, but fell out of fashion. Opossums are really fluffy, but their fur doesn’t look particularly dense.

Comments are closed.