Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beaver Hats

Excerpt from 2 "Centuries of Costume in America, Volume I" by Alice Morse Earle, which can be purchased used or new by clicking on the title... (I recommend the pre-1970 version as it hasn't been gutted of all the original quotes). I actually recommend any of her books, she's highly entertaining!

From chapter VII, "caps and beavers in colonial days"

"The Turk in linen wraps his head
The Persian his in lawn, too,
The Russ with sables furs his
nd change will not be drawn to.

"The Spaniard's constant to his block
The Frenchman inconstant ever;
But of all felts that may be felt
Give me the English beaver.

"The German loves his coney-wool
The Irishman his shag, too,
The Welsh is Monmouth loves to wear
And of the same w
ill brag, too"

-"A Challenge for Beauty," Thomas Hayward

"The vogue of beaver hats was in important factor in the settlement of America.
The first Spanish, Dutch, English and French colonists all came to America to seek for gold and furs. The Spaniards found gold, the Dutch and French found furs, but the English who found fish found the greatest wealth of all, for food is ever more than raiment.

Of the furs, the most important and most valuable was beaver. The English sent some beaver back to Europe; the very first ship to return from Plymouth carried back two hogsheads. Winslow sent twenty hogsheads as early as 1634, and Bradford shows that the trade was deemed important. But the wild creatures speedily retreated. Johnson declares that as early as 1645 the beaver trade had left the frontier post of Springfield, on the Connecticut River.

From the earliest days both the french and English crown had treated the fishing and fur industries with unusual discretion, giving a monopoly to the fur trade and leaving the fisheries free, so the later constantly increased, while in New England the fur trade passed over to the Dutch, distinctly to the advantage of the English, for the lazzy trader at a post was neither a good savage nor a good citizen, while the hardy fishermaen and bold sailor of New England brought wealth to every town. For some years the Dutch appeared to have the best of it for they received ten to fifteen thousand beaver skins annually from New England; and they had trading posts on Narragansett and Buzzards Bay. Still the trade drew the Dutch away from agriculture, and the real success of New Netherland did not come with furs, but with corn.

The fur trade was certainly an interesting factor in the growth of the dutch settlement. Fort Orange, or Albany, called the Fuyck was the natural topographical fuyck or trap-net to catch this trade, and in the very first season of its settlement fifteen hundred beaver and five hundred otter skins were dispatched to Holland. In 1657 Johannes Dyckman asserted that 40,900 beaver and otter skins were sent that year from Fort Orange to Fort Amsterdam (New York City). As these skins were valued at from eight to ten guilders apiece (about $3.50 and with a purchasing value equal to $20.00 to day), it can readily be seen what a source of wealth seemed opened. The authorities at Fort Orange, the patrons of Renssalaerwyck and Beverwyck, were not to be permitted to absorb all this wondrous gain in undisturbed peace. The increment of the India Company was diverted and hindered in various ways. Unscrupulous and crafty citizens of Fort Orange (independent handelers or handlers) and their thrifty, penny-turning vrouvs decoyed the Indian trappers and hunters into their peaceful, honest kitchens under pretense of kindly Christian welcome to the peltry-bearing braves; and they filled the guileless savages with Dutch schnapps, or Barbadoes "kill-devil," until the befuddled or half-crazed Indians parted with their precious stores of hard-trapped skins and threw off their well-perspired and greased beaver coats and exchanged them for such valuable dutch wares as knives, scissors, beads, and jew's-harps, or even a few pints of quickly vanishing rum, instead of solid Dutch guilders or substantial Dutch blankets. And even before these strategic Dutch citizens could corral and fleece them, the incoming fur-bearers had to run as insinuating a gantlet of buschloopers, bush-runner, drummers or "broakers," who sallied out on the narrow Indian paths to buy the coveted furs even before they were brought into Fort Orange. Much legislation ensued. Scout-buying was prohibited. Citizens were forbidden "to addresse to speak to the wilden of trading, " or to entice them to "traffique," or to harbor them overnight. Indian houses to lodge the trappers were built just outside the gate, where the dickering would be public. These were built by rates collected from all "Christian dealers" in furs.

But Indian paths were many, and the water-ways were unpatrolled, and kitchen doors could be slyly opened in the dusk; so the government, in spite of laws and shelter-houses , did not get all the beaver skins. Too many were eager for the lucrative and irregular trade; agricultural pursuits were alarmingly neglected; other communities became rivals and the beavers soon were exterminated from the valley of the Hudson, and by 1660 the Fort Orange trade was sadly diminished. The governor of Canada had an itching palm, and lured the Indians -- and beaver skins-- to Montreal. Thus "impaired by French wiles," scarce ninen tousand peltries came in 1687 to Fort Orange. With a few fluttering rallies until the Revolutionary times the fur trade of Albany became extinct; it passed from both Dutch and French and was dominated by the Hudson Bay Fur Company.

So clear a description of the fur of the beaver and the use of the pelt was given by Adriaen van der Donck, who lived at Fort Orange from the year 1641 to 1646, and traded for years with the Indians that it is well to give his exact words: --

"The beaver's skin is rough but thickly set with fine fur of an ash-gray color inclining to blue. The outward points also incline to a russet or brown color. From the fur of the beaver the best hats are made that are worn. They are called beavers or castoreums from the material of which they are made, and they are known by this name all over Europe. Outside of the coat of fur many shining hairs appear called wind-hairs, which are more properly winter-hairs, for they fall out in summer and appear again in winter. The outer coat is of a chestnut-brown color, the browner the color the better is the fur. Sometimes it will be a little reddish.
"When hats are made of the fur, the rough ha
irs are pulled out for they are useless. The skins are usually first sent to Russia, where they are highly valued for their outside shining hair, and on this their greatest recommendation depends with the Russians. The skins are used there for mantle-linings and are also cut into strips for borders as we cut rabbit-skins. Therefore we call the same peltries. Whoever has there the most and costliest fur-trimmings is deemed a person of very high rank, as with us the finest stuffs and gold and silver embroideries are regarded as the appendages of the great. After the hairs have fallen out, or are worn, the peltries become old and dirty and apparently useless, we get the article back, and convert the fur into hats, before which it cannot be well used for this purpose, for unless the beaver has been worn, and is greasy and dirty, it will not felt properly, hence these old peltries are the most valuable. The coats which the Indians make of beaver-skins and which they have worn for a long time around their bodies until the skins have become foul with perspiration and grease are afterwards used by the hatters and make the best hats."

"One notion about beaver must be told. Its great popularity for many years arose, it is conjectured from its original use as a cap for curative purposes. Such a beaver cap would "unfeignedly" recover to a man his hearing, and stimulate his memory to a wonder, especially if the "oil of castor" was rubbed in his hair.

The beaver hat was for centuries a choice and costly article of dress; it went through many bizarre forms. On the head of Henry IV of France and Navarre, as made known in his portrait, is a hat which effectually destroys all possibility of dignity. It is a bell-crowned stove-pipe of the precise shape worn later by coachmen and by dandies about the years 1820 to 1830. It is worn very much over one royal ear, like the hat of a well-set-up, self-important coachman of the palmy days of English coaching and gives an air of absurd modernity and cockney importance to the picture of a king of great dignity.

(1552-99 Portrait of King Henry IV of France, attributed to Francois Bunel)

The hat worn by James I, ere he was King of England is shown on page 220. It is funnier than any seen for years in a comic opera.

(1590 King James I of England & VI of Scotland)

(King James I, post-1603, I will try to find a hard date for this image)

The hat worn by Francis Bacon is a plain felt, greatly in contrast with his rich laced triple ruff and cuffs and embroidered garments.
(this is not the image Mrs. Earle is referring to, but I cannot find it on Google or in a book... it's the one that is a full bust with ruffled cuffs, but the hat is, unsurprisingly, the same).

That of Thomas Cecil on page 230 varies slightly.
(again, this is a different image than the one in the book, which I believe may be a print of this painting. The ruff & hat are the same, as are the doublet & ribbon, the gown differs slightly. This is Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exter 1605). Many thanks to for the images & fascinating information on English Peerage.

Two very singular shapings of the plain hat may be seen, one on page 223 on the head of Fulke Greville, where the round-topped, high crown is most disproportionate to the narrow brim.

(go here for more info on Fulke Greville)

The second, on page 225, shows and extreme sugar-loaf, almost a pointed crown.
(again, this is a different image from the one Mrs. Early has in her book, this drawing is much clearer & shows the hat better. For more info on James Douglas 4th Earl of Morton, go here).

A good hat was very expensive, and important enough to be left among bequests in a will. They were borrowed and hired for many years and even down to the time of Queen Anne we find the rent of a subscription hat to be L2 6s. per annum! The hiring out of a hat does not seem strange when hiring out of clothes was a regular business with tailors..."

... (here she talks about clothing bequests & hangman getting the clothes of the executed)...

"Old Philip Stubbes has given us a wonderful description of English head-gear:--

"Hats of Sundrie Fations"
"Sometymes they use them sharpe on the Croune, pearking up like the Spire, or Shaft of a Steeple, standying a more, some lesse, as please the phantasies of their incomnstant mindes. Othersome be flat and broad on the Crowne, like the battlementes of a house. An other sorte haue rounde Crownes, sometymes with one kindle of Band, sometymes with another, now black, now white, now russet, now red, now grene, now yel
lowe, now this, now that, never content with one colour or fashion two daies to an ende. And thus in vanitie they spend the Lorde his treasure, consuming their golden yeres and siluer daies in wickednesse and sinne. And as the fashions bee rare and strange, so is the stuffe whereof their hattes be made divers also; for some are of Silke, some of Veluet, some of Taffatie, some of Sarcenet, some of Wooll, and whiche is more curious, some of a certaine kinde of fine Haire; these they call Bever hattes, or or xl. shillinges price, fetched from beyonde the seas, from whence a greate sorte of other vanities doe come besides. And so common a thing it is, that euery seruyngman, countrieman, and other, euen all indefferently, dooe weare of these hattes. Fore he is of no account or estimation amongst men if he haue not a Veluet or Taffatie hatte, and that must be Pincked, and Cunnyngly Carved of the beste fashion. And good profitable hattes be these, for the longer you weare them the fewere holes they haue. Besides this, of later there is a new fashion of wearying their hattes sprong vp amongst them, which they father upon a Frenchman, namely, to weare them with bandes, but how unseemely (I will not saie how hassie) a fashion that is let the wise judge; notwithstanding, however it be, if it please them, it shall not displease me.
"And another sort (as phantasticall as the rest) are content with no kinde of hat without a greate Bunche of Feathers of diuers and sondrie Colours, peakying on top of their heades, not unlike (I dare not saie) Cocksecombes, but as sternes of pride, and ensignes of vanity. And yet notwithstanding these Flutterying Salies, and Feathered Flagges of defiaunce of Vertue (for so they be) are so advanced that every child hath them in his Hat or Cap; many get good living by dying and selling of them, and not a few proue the selues more than Fooles in wearying of them."

"Notwithstanding this list of Stubbes, it is very curious to note that in general the shape of the real beaver hat remained the same as long as it was worn uncocked."

She then goes on to discuss hats being worn indoors, in the presence of royalty or not, etc. Hatbands are next and other hat decorations, such as gloves, feathers, flowers, etc.
She talks about the steeple-crowned hat & red cloak at the time of the witch trials & how that style has forever been associated with the "witch" of today.

One other interesting quote from this chapter dealing with fur hats;--

"In 1672 an association of Massachusetts hatters asked privileges and protection from the colonial government to aid and encourage American manufacture, but they were refused until they made better hats. Shortly after, however, the exportation of raccoon fur to England was forbidden, or taxed, as it was found to be useful in the home manufacture of hats."

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