1902 Encyclopedia > Fur

Fur




FUR. Certain animals, which inhabit the colder climates, have a covering upon the skin called fur, lying alongside of another and longer covering, called the over-hair. The fur differs from the overhair in that it is soft, silky, curly, downy, and barbed lengthwise, while the over-hair is straight, smooth, and comparatively rigid. These properties of fur constitute its essential value for felting purposes, and mark its difference from wool and silk ; the first, after some slight preparation by the aid of hot water, readily unites its fibres into a strong and compact mass ; the others can best be managed by spinning and weaving.

On the living animal the overhair keeps the furfilaments apart, prevents their tendency to felt, and protects them from injury—thus securing to the animal an immunity from cold and storm ; while, as a matter of fact, this very overhair, though of an humbler name, is most generally the beauty and pride of the pelt, and marks its chief value with the furrier. We arrive thus at two distinct and opposite uses and values of fur. Regarded as useful for felt it is denominated staple fur, while with respect to its use with and on the pelt it is called fancy fur. For the one purpose the Russian hare skin is more valuable than the Russian sable, while for the other the sable may be valued at one thousand times the former.

History.—The manufacture of fur into a felt is of com-paratively modern origin, while the use of fur pelts as a covering for the body, for the couch, or for the tent is coeval with the earliest history of all northern tribes and nations. They were not simply a barbarous expedient to defend man from the rigours of an arctic winter; woven wool alone cannot, in its most perfect form, accomplish this. The pelt or skin is requisite to keep out the piercing wind and driv-ing storm, while the fur and overhair ward off the cold; and they are as much a necessity to-day among more northern peoples as they ever were in the days of barbarism. With them the providing of this necessary covering became the first purpose of their toil; subsequently the article grew into an object of barter and traffic, at first among themselves, and afterwards with their neighbours of more temperate climes ; and with the latter it naturally became an article of fashion, of ornament, and of luxury. This, in brief, has been the history of its use in China, Tartary, Russia, Siberia, and North America, and at present the employ-ment of fancy furs among the civilized nations of Europe and America has grown to be more extensive than at any former period. The supply of this demand in earlier times led to such severe competition as to terminate in tribal pillages and even national wars; and in modern times it has led to commercial ventures on the part of individuals and companies, the account of which, told in its plainest form, reads like the pages of a romance. Furs have constituted the price of redemption for royal captives, the gifts of emperors and kings, and the peculiar badge of state function-aries. At the present day they vie with precious gems and gold as ornaments and garniture for wealth and fashion; but by their abundance, and the cheapness of some varieties, they have recently come within the reach of men of moderate incomes. The history of furs can be read in Marco Polo, as he grows eloquent with the description of the rich skins of the khan of Tartary; in the early fathers of the church, who lament their introduction into Rome and Byzantium as an evidence oi barbaric and debasing luxury; in the political history of Russia, stretching out a powerful arm over Siberia to secure her rich treasures; in the story of the French, occupation of Canada, and the ascent of the St Lawrence to its source in Lake Superior, and the subsequent contest to retain possession against England; in the early settlements of New England, New York, and Virginia; in Irving's Astoria ; in the records of the Hudson's Bay Company ; and in the annals of the fairs held at Nijni-Novgorod and Leipsic. Here it may suffice to give some account of the present condition of the trade in fancy furs. The collection of skins is now chiefly a matter of private enterprise. Few, if any, monopolies exist. The Alaska Commercial Company, now about ten years old, enjoys some special privilege for the taking of seal skins on the Pribiloff Islands, and some peculiar restrictions exist in Russia in relation to certain peltries, but beyond this, the trade in furs is a free one the world over. Individual enterprise, skill, forecast, and capital, have an open field. The Hudson's Bay Company, with its chief office in London, still maintains its organization, but conducts its affairs in North America under no special or royal grant, and competes in the open market with individual traders throughout Canada, Labrador, Manitoba, and Columbia. Its collection of peltries is offered to the highest bidder at public auction in London, in January, March, and September of each year.

Private collectors and dealers throughout Canada and the United States forward their furs to the seaboard, chiefly to New York, for sale there, or for consignment principally to London and to Leipsic. The latter town still maintains the custom of spring and autumn fairs, at which most kinds of wares are sold or exchanged with dealers from Turkey, Austria, and Russia. Nijni-Novgorod is the chief fair for European Russia, though very important fairs are also held in Kasan and in Irbifc among the Ural Mountains. The most important fair for eastern Siberia is held at Kiachta, on the borders of China, where an extensive exchange of furs is carried on with the Celestials. Japan has added but little to the activity or extension of the fur trade, though her northern shores have furnished many a fine fur seal and sea otter to the hardy navigator. Staple furs, or those used chiefly in the manufacture of hats, are those of the hare and the rabbit, collected mainly in Russia, Germany, France, and England, dressed, carroted, and cut from the skin in western Germany, France, Belgium, and England, and thence distributed to the manufacturing centres of the world; and here it may be added that the clippings and cuttings of fancy furs from the workshops of furriers are all saved, and find their way to the machinery which utilizes the waste and transforms them into hatters' furs. But of all these fur marts that of London is the chief, for thither tend by the laws of trade, not only much of the produce of Asia and Europe, but also the fine peltries of Chili and Peru, the nutria from Buenos Ayres, the fur seal of Cape Horn and South Shetland, the hair seal from Newfoundland, as well as the inferior peltries of Africa. To prepare fur skins in a way to endure this long transportation is a simple and easy matter. When stripped from the animal the flesh and fat are carefully removed, and the pelts hung in a cool place to dry and harden; nothing is added to protect them. Care is taken that they do not heat after packing, and that they are occasionally beaten to destroy worms. A marked exception is the case of the fur seal, which is best preserved by liberal salting and packing in hogsheads. All other raw furs are marketed in bales.

Kinds and Quantities. —Few kinds of animals furnish a pelt of suitable weight and pliability, and all of them differ widely in elegance of texture, delicacy of shade, and fineness of overhair, and it is these differences which determine their place in the catalogue of merchandise. These few animals are not very prolific, and many of them attain their greatest beauty in wild and uncultivated regions. To this remark there are some notable exceptions. Being thus few in kind, and limited in quantity, one might fear the extinc-tion of the several choice varieties through the persistent energy of the trapper. But here the fickleness of fashion steps in, and does for the fur trade what the law of supply and demand does for the more staple articles of commerce. Fashion, fastidious and fickle, neglects the use of certain kinds for a season; the market price of the pelt no longer repays the outfit of the trapper; the hunt is intermitted, and in two or three years the animal regains its numbers and strength. The annual collection of furs is thus a matter of ceaseless change; but the following may be relied on as an estimate correct enough for all practical purposes :—

Average Annual Collection.
Badger America 5,000
,, Europe and Asia 50,000
Bear America 15,000
,, Europe and Asia 4,000
Beaver Asia. 20,000
, America 200,000
Buffalo America 100,000
Chinchilla Peru and Chili 100,000
Cat, Wild 10,000
„ House 1,000,000
Ermine Asia and Europe 400,000
Fisher America 12,000
Fitch Europe 600,000
Fox, Silver Asia and America 2,000
,, Cross Asia and America 10,000
,, Blue Europe and America 7,000
„ "White Arctic 75,000
„ Red... Asia and Europe 300,000
„ „ America 60,000
„ Gray America 30,000
,, Kitt America 40,000
Hamster Europe 200,000
Hare Asia and Europe 4,500,000
Kolinsky Asia 80,000
Lamb Persian 100,000
„ Astrakhan 600,000
,, European 2,000,000
Lion 500
Lynx 50,000
Marten : America 130,000
Stone Europe 150,000
,, Baum Europe 60,000
,, Russian Sable 100,000
Mink America 250,000
Russia 50,000
Monkey Africa 40,000
Musk Rat America 3,000,000
Russia 100,000
Nutria South America 3,000,000
Opossum America 250,000
Otter, Land 40,000
,, Sea North Pacific 5,000
Rabbit Europe 5,000,000
Raccoon America 500,000
Seal, Hair Atlantic 1,000,000
„ Fur Pacific 200,000
Skunk America 550,000
Squirrel Siberia 6,000,000
Tiger Bengal and North China 500
Wolf 25.000
Wolverin 3,500





For the habits of these animals, and their modes of life, reference must be made to the separate articles, and to such works as those of Cuvier and Brehm. But a brief account may be given here of the different qualities of the pelts, with some general remarks as to their average value and their customary uses.

Badger.—Size, 1 by 2 feet; overhair coarse, 3 to 4 inches long, black with silver spots. The German are the best. Fur woolly. American have softer overhair. Used for robes, military trappings, and brashes. Value of prime, from 2s. to 6s. per skim

Bear, Black.— Size, 3 by 6 feet; overhair 6 to 8 inches long, fine, flowing, and glossv; fur thin. Best are American. Used tor robes, military caps, and mats. The finest are the cubs. Value ot prime, from £1 to £4. . .

Bear, Broum.—Same size as the black, and very fine in overhair. Found only in the Hudson's Bay territory. Used for muffs and garniture. Value of best prime, £15. Quantity very small.

Bear, Grizzly. —Larger than the black; coarse hair; thick heavy pelt. Only found in western part of United States. Used as robes. Value, £1 to £2.

Bear, White. —Largest of the bear family; hair short and rigid; pelt thick. Found only in the Arctic regions. The best pure white are used for robes. Value from £10 to £20.

Beaver.—Size, 2 by 3 feet; overhair 3 inches long, coarse and brown in colour; fur thick, line, and dark grey. Best are from Labrador and Moose Fort. Used in every form and fashion in all northern countries; highly prized in Russia and China. Value from 4s. to 12s. per pound in the raw parchment state.

Buffalo.—Size, 8 to 12 feet long; hair coarse, colour dun brown. Only found on the western and northern American prairies. Best are from the region of the Saskatchewan river. Prime are used as robes; coarse and unprime as leather for moccasins. Value 12s. to £2.

Chinchilla.—Two kinds, real and bastard. Size of real, 8 by 12 inches; overhair and fur of equal length—about 1J inches long, very fine, and like wool may be spun and woven; colour silver grey and dark. Best are from Peru. Used for muffs, boas, and borders on garments; value from 4s. to 12s. The bastard are from Chili (chinchilla means the Chilian skin), short in fur, small in size, weak in pelt, and are worth from 5d. to l0d.

Oat, Wild.—Overhair and fur thin and coarse; colour grey; value and uses very limited. Civet eats are sometimes admired for their singular marks, but are in poor demand. House cats are too well known to require a description. Their colours are black, grey, red, and mottled. Best come from Holland; the poorest from Russia. Used very generally for fur work. Price of best black 4s. to 8s. ; other sorts nominal.

Ermine.—Size, 4 by 10 inches; overhair and fur fine, soft, and close; pelt thin and tough; colour pure white, the tip of the tail black. Best are from Barabinsk and Ischim, in Siberia. Used for muffs, garments, and linings. Value variable; the best have been as high as 6s., and as low as 7d.

Fisher.—Size, 15 by 30 inches; overhair very fine, glossy, dark, and durable, 2 inches long; fur close; tail 12 inches long, busby, and dark. A right noble skin. Best from British America. Value from £2 to £4.

Fitch.—Size about that of the American mink; overhair fine, 1J inches long, with dark points; fur a golden yellow. Best from Germany, Holland, and Denmark; smallest from Russia. LTsed mi-ladies' furs according to the prevalent fashion. Value from 2s. to 6s.

Fox, Silver.—Size, 2 by 4 feet; overhair thick and fine, 3 inches long, varied in colour from pale silver to a brilliant blue black; fur tine and curly; its beauty places it at the head of all fancy furs; the tail is a royal brush. The choicest are from Labrador and Moose Fort; those of Russia are more woolly and less valuable. Used for muffs, boas, and linings of robes. Price from £10 to £40.

Fox, Cross. —Not quite so large as the silver, with fine overhair, but a shade of red at the points, and from the paleness of the fur making a distinct dark cross at the shoulders. Best are from the Hudson's Bay territory, and valued from £2 to £8.

Fox, Blue. —Size the same as the cross, with grey-blue overhair, and a woolly fur. The finest are from Archangel on the White Sea, and from Greenland. Value from £2 to £4.

Fox, White. —Size the same as the cross, with pure white over-hair and fur. The best are from Labrador, the poorest from Asia. Value from 4s. to 12s.

Fox, Med.—Well known to all northern nations; abundant in Europe, but in size and beauty inferior to the American family. The former fetch 4s., while those from Labrador are valued at 16s.

Fox, Grey.—Only found in the United States. Overhair is grey, sprinkled with silver on the back, the sides are yellow, and the tail an ashen grey. Value from 4s. to 8s.

Fox, Kitt. —Found in north-west America and in Tartary. Over-hair fine; the back is a pure grey, the sides yellow, and the belly white. In size it is the smallest of the foxes. Price from Is. to 3s.

Hamster. —Size, 3 by 5 inches; hair short and close, back grey and the sides yellow. A great trouble to the farmers in Germany, who spare no pains to exterminate them. The pelt is made into linings for cloaks.

Hare. —Overhair fine; fur very long, fine, abundant, and strong; pelt weak; colour grey and white. Best are from Russia. This skin is largely used by furriers, but its fur is among the best for hatters' purposes. Value from 5d. to Is.





Kolinsky.—Found only in Asia, and attains the size of the American mink; overhair a golden red, 1J inches long. The tails make excellent pencils for painters. Value from 2s. to 4s.

Lamb.—The finest, dark, close curled skins come from Persia; the next grade from the Crimea, and are grey in colour; inferior skins from Astrakhan. All these are used by furriers for caps, borders, and garments. The finest Persian are worth 12s. to £1, the Crimean 6s., and the Astrakhan from Is. to 2s. The lamb-skins of western Europe are used for lining gloves. Angora sheep are sometimes in demand, and are coloured red, blue, grey, am3 orange to suit the fashion for fringes and borders. Their value is from 12s. to £2.

Lion.—The finest from Asia. Specimens are rare, and price variable.

Lynx. —Size, 2 by 3J feet; overhair fine and flowing, of a clear silver blue shade, sprinkled with black; length of overhair 3 to 4 inches. Best are from Sweden and Labrador. Value from 8s. to £1.

Marten, American.—Size from 5 by 15 inches to 8 by 20 inches; overhair fine and flowing, 1 to 2 inches long; fur close and thick: colour of best a dark coffee brown, of poorest a pale yellow. The finest are from the Great WThale River and Labrador. Always a choice and valued pelt. Price of best £5, of poorest 2s. The tips of the tails are highly prized for artists' brushes.

Marten, Stone.—Found in Europe; the best from Hungary and Turkey. Colour a dull grey, overhair coarse, and fur woolly. Value of best prime, 8s. to 12s.

Marten, Baurn.—Found in Europe and Asia, of fine overhair, but woolly fur, of a brownish colour, approaching that of the American marten, and furnished with a long and bushy tail. Value from £1 to £2.

Marten, Russian Sable.—These skins are in the highest estima-tion with furriers. Size about the same as the American marten, but the overhair is much more fine and flowing, of a rich bluish dark shade, and from 1J to 2-J inches long; the pelt is very soft, tough, and durable. The best are from Yakutsk in Siberia, the next from the Lena river, and the poorest from the lower Amoor. Very choice grades, but of a browner shade, are furnished by Kamchatka. Value of the poor Saghalien from 4s. to 8s.; while the darkest from Okhotsk will command £30.

Mink, American.—This valuable skin has nearly the size of the skin of the marten, with an overhair that is shorter and slightly more rigid, but vies with the marten in elegance of lustre, the choicest having a dark blue shade that is always admired in furs. The best are from Nova Scotia, the State of Maine, and the Labrador coast. It is most abundant in the middle and north-western States. Value of the best, from 12s. to £2.

Mink, Russian.—Of smaller size than the American, and inferior in all other respects, but still a valuable pelt. Price of prime, from 2s. to 6s.

Monkey.—From the west coast of Africa; has a long, thin, flowing hair; of various colours, chiefly black and dun grey. Has a limited use with furriers, fetching from 2s. to 6s.

Musk-Bat.—A well-known fur in North America. Size 8 by 12 inches; overhair coarse and light brown; fur fine, thick, and silky; in general favour with furriers, and available for a great variety of purposes. Best are from New England and New York; very prolific in cultivated regions. The price is very fluctuating, and as the annual collection varies from three to five millions of skins, it is difficult to forecast the market value. Price for prime, from 6d. to 3s. A variety of black coloured musk-rat from Delaware and Maryland fetches double these prices.
Nutria.—From the La Plata, South America; in size and value between the beaver and the musk-rat; overhair coarse and rigid; fur short and fine; pelts too often unsound, and hence the value of the fur is chiefly for hats. Price of dry skins from Is. to 2s per pound.

Opossum.—Chiefly from the United States, but some also from Australia. Overhair long, coarse and whitish grey; fur woolly. Best from Ohio Value from 5d. to 2s.

Otter.—Comes from all northern countries. Size of best, 2 by 5 feet; overhair thick and close; colour brown black. Best are from. Labrador and Canada. The skin is in high reputation and general use with furriers. Value of best, £1, 10s. to £3.

Otter, Sea.—Found only in the North Pacific Ocean, on the coasts of Alaska, Kamchatka, and Japan. Size, 2 by 6 feet; overhair exceedingly fine, and extending but little beyond the fur, which itself is very thick, close, fine, and silky; colour dark brown, occasionally with silver points regularly interspersed; pelt pliable and firm. The poorest skins are not more valuable than those of the beaver; but the fine choice specimens command from £20 to £100. They are in high repute with the Russians and Chinese.

Rabbit.—Size, 10 by 16 inches: fur thick and fine; pelt weak; colour all shades from black to white. Best are found in England, but the purest come from Poland. The best coloured skins are used by furriers, but much the larger portion is cut for hatters' fur. The animal is largely bred in warrens, and its flesh used as food; the pelts thus become of secondary importance, and, being abundant, supply a cheap fur,

Raccoon.—One of the peculiar and valuable pelts of the United States, and flourishing best in cultivated regions. Size, 1 by 2 feet; overhair not fine, but bright in colour, 3 inches long, thick, and flowing; fur resembling that of the beaver; colour irom silver blue to grey brown and coffee brown. Best are from Michigan and Ohio. Average value of prime, 4s. Some specimens vie with the fisher in its peculiar shade, and some even with the silver fox, and such rare skins bring from £1 to £4.

Seal, Hair.—Chiefly from the North Atlantic. Size from 3 to 6 feet; hair coarse and rigid; no fur; divided into white coats, blue backs, mottled, and ordinary. Used for saddlery and military purposes. Average price, 2s.

Seal, Fur. —Pound, only in the Pacific and in the South Atlantic. Size of the wigs, 4 by 8 feet; of the large, 3 by 6 feet; middling, %\ by 5 feet; small, 2 by 4 feet; the pups vary in length from 2 to 4 feet. Overhair coarse and rigid; fur fine, thick, silky, and very uniformly distributed. Pelt thin, pliable, and of light weight. The largest number come from Alaska, whence 100,000 are allowed by law to be brought annually. The best of these are the prime middling pups. Value varies from £1 to £3 in the salted state. A few fine skins come from the coast of British Columbia, and being caught in winter are in prime condition. The choicest skins are taken on the South Shetland and South Georgia Islands in the Antarctic Ocean. Fur fine beyond comparison; pelt very pliable, light, and thin and firm. Value salted, from £2 to £10.

Skunk.—Another peculiar production of North America. Size, 10 by 16 inches long; overhair fine, 3 inches long, dark blue and coffee brown, thick, glossy, and flowing. Many have two white stripes, more or less broad, extending from the head to the tail. It is now easy to deodorize the skin, and the fur is a popular one in all countries. The best are from New York and Ohio; value of best prime black, from 4s. to 10s.

Squirrel. —Only those of northern Europe and Asia have a value as merchandise. American are worthless. Size, 3 by 6 inches; overhair and fur equally fine; colour from pale blue to clear dark blue; best are from eastern Siberia; palest and poorest from European Russia; bellies white; tails long and bushy. This fur is in universal demand among furriers for muffs and linings, as well as for large garments. Pelt pliable and tough; fur durable, close, and fine. The tails are made into boas and brushes.

Tiger.—Specimens are rare. Those from Bengal are large and short in hair, but well marked; while those from northern China have hair 2 to 3 inches long, and frequently measure 10 to 14 feet in length. Value of the latter, from £10 to £20.

Wolf.—The largest are from Labrador, measuring from 4 to 6 feet long, chiefly grey-brown in colour, with long, flowing, coarse overhair. The finest are from Fort Churchill, and fetch a high price. The American prairie wolf is a variety inferior in every respect. Price of best, £2; of the inferior, 4s. The wolf is very destructive of the fur-bearing animals, and is an object of extermina-tion with all trappers.

Wolverin.—From Russia, Norway, and Hudson's Bay. Colour a clear dark brown, overhair coarse, 2J inches long. Value from 12s. to 24s..

Of the fur-bearers, those that seek their food in water have their finest but shortest fur on the belly, and longer fur upon the back ; while those that avoid the rivers have their longest and finest fur upon the back, and their bellies clothed with fine, long, flowing overhair.

Dressing.—-Raw furs are made ready for use by softening the pelt with pure butter or olive oil, trampling them in tubs filled with fine hardwood sawdust at about blood heat, drawing the pelt over a sharp knife to remove every particle of flesh, and finally trampling them again in clean sawdust. The pelt thus becomes soft and pliable like the fine kid used for gloves. They are then ready for the furrier, who assorts the skins as to colour and overhair, and cuts them in various ways to bring them to the pattern of the article required. Having been sewed together with a close, fine overseam, the article is damped, and stretched upon a smooth pine board after a pattern marked, then nailed along its edges and left to dry. After removal from the board the article is trimmed, and softened by rubbing, and is then ready for the liner. The skill of the furrier lies in the taste exhibited in the arrangement of the furs, and in the economy of use of material.

Dyeing.—Furs are dyed in a variety of ways to make them uniform in colour, and adapt them to the fashion and taste of the time. Ordinarily this is a cheap and ready process, and only becomes an art when employed upon fine skins, from which the overhair has been first removed by plucking, leaving the fur alone to receive the dye-stuff. Among these are the skins of the musk rat, beaver, otter, and especially the fur seal; the last has received very careful attention, as its entire value depends upon the perfection and success of the process. Unprime fur seals part with their overhair very reluctantly, while the seasoned skins are very readily unhaired, leaving the fur in all its smoothness ; thus the best grades are likely to be very good, while the rest rank only from ordinary to very com-mon. A subsequent process is the removal of all grease from the fur, which is effected by repeated washings in softened water ; if this is imperfectly done, the colour will be uneven and not permanent. The final work is to prepare a dye of suitable strength, and apply it in a suitable way, to infuse the colouring matters into the fur, without suffering too much of it to reach the pelt, whereby its durability might be ruined. London claims to have accom-plished this for the sealskin in a manner that distances all competition ; and it certainly enjoys a wide popularity, as well as the substantial fruits of the sale of its production of coloured seals. But America also has its successful dyers of seals, one of the most important of the results they have achieved being the giving to the fur seal a fine deep brown colour, without injuring or burning the fur, while leaving the pelt soft, light, and durable.

Prices of Fancy Furs.—The market value of dressed and manufactured furs is at the mercy of fickle fashion and the weather. The production of any one variety is very limited, and consequently those that are in fashion during a cold winter command full and even extravagant prices, while others, of equal intrinsic merit, have a merely nominal value. The consumer is not more responsible for this than are the furrier and the fur merchant. It was the remark of an old and successful fur dealer that "furs when wanted are diamonds, when not wanted are charcoal." This fact renders the trade an extremely hazardous one, and tends to make the venture in it a matter of speculation rather than of provident enterprise ; and while the consumer occasionally may have to pay a very extravagant price for some few varieties of furs for a short period, it happens far more frequently that the fur dealer is a severe sufferer by reason of sanguine anticipations of advance in values, which in nine cases out of ten are doomed to disappointment. (M. M. B.)


The foregoing article is reprinted, by permission of Messrs Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, Mass., from Fur and the Fur Trade, by M. M. Backus, Boston, 1879.



The above article was written by M. M. Backus, fir merchant, New York.




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