Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/December 1873/Furs and their Wearers
THE skins used for fancy furs and robes are mostly obtained from the carnivorous or flesh-eating animals; as the sable, marten, mink, ermine, seal, otter, bear, etc.: some are obtained from the rodents or gnawers; as the beaver, coypou, or nutria, muskrat, rabbit, etc.: and a few are obtained from the ruminants, or those that chew the cud; as the bison, that supplies our buffalo-robes; and the paseng or wild-goat of Persia and the Caucasus, and the Assyrian or Siberian sheep, from whose young kids and lambs we obtain the much-used Astrakhan. We give illustrations of the principal fur-bearing animals, several of which are taken from Tenney's excellent "Manual of Zoology."
As furs are generally worn by those who consult taste rather than necessity, their use depends very much upon fashion and caprice. Hence their price varies much at different times, and is not always regulated by their intrinsic value. As it is natural to prefer articles that are rare and far-fetched, and as furs can be easily carried to any part of the world, most prefer foreign to domestic furs of the same quality. Thus we export much of our fox, marten, fisher, otter, beaver, and muskrat fur, while we import Astrakhan, Russian sable, ermine, Siberian squirrel, French rabbit, or cony, chinchilla, and nutria fur.
At the present time, much of the fur worn is colored. In some cases, the hair, fur, and skin, are all colored; as the Astrakhan: but in most cases the end of the hair or fur only is tinted, while the skin remains untouched. The object of the tinting appears to be, to make all parts of the fur on a skin of the same color; to make an inferior fur appear like a superior one of the same kind; or to make the fur of one animal pass for that of another; as, for instance, the marten for the sable. Dyed furs are generally not durable—soon fade, and apppear
as if old and worn. Hair and fur frequently grow together on fur-bearing animals; and, if the fur alone be wanted, the hair, which is usually longer than the fur, must be plucked or otherwise removed. During the spring and summer the fur of many land animals fades, and is shed for the season; leaving nothing but hair remaining, or perhaps
fur inferior in color and fineness. In the autumn, a new coat of the animal's finest fur is grown, which has comparative freshness and brilliancy of color. Furs, taken in the best season in the higher latitudes, are called prime; those taken out of season are, in common parlance, said to be stagy.
Other things being the same, the colder the climate the better the fur. Hence our best furs are generally obtained in the higher latitudes, or in cool mountain-regions, during the prevalence of snow and the severity of winter. Thus the hunter is exposed to much labor, fatigue, privation, and danger. They who, in the inhospitable clime of Siberia, hunt the sable, in the most inclement season of the year, undergo intense suffering and hardship.
Sables are three or four times as large as the common weasel, to which family they belong. They are usually taken between November and February, in snares, traps, or pitfalls, baited with flesh or fish. They are then of a beautiful black color, but are brownish in summer. The fur of the Russian sable, by its richness and elegance, maintains its preëminence. It may be distinguished from all other furs, by the hairs turning and lying with equal ease in either direction; which may be shown by blowing it. It is limited in quantity, only about 15,000 being caught yearly, and the price of the best is almost fabulous: a furrier suggests from $20 to $150 per skin. Fresh furs have what dealers call a bloomy appearance. Dyed sables generally lose their gloss, whether the lower hair has taken the dye or not; and the hairs are twisted or crisped. Some smoke the skins to blacken them, but the smell and crisped hairs betray the cheat. To detect dyeing or smoking, rub the fur with a moist linen cloth, which will then be blackened. The Chinese, however, dye the sables so that the color lasts, and the fur keeps its gloss; then, the fraud can be detected only by the crisped hairs.
The fur of the pine marten is nearly equal to that of the sable. Its color is a lustrous brown, and it is frequently tinted so as to resemble the real sable; and efforts are said to have been sometimes made to palm it upon buyers as the genuine Russian. That which is obtained in America, some 200,000 skins annually, which is somewhat better than the European, is usually called, by dealers, Hudson Bay sable. It is an excellent and valuable fur, very full and soft, and, like the Russian sable, is much used for muffs, capes, collars, boas, and other kinds of fancy furs. The fur of the beech or stone marten is much inferior to that of the sable or pine marten. It is of a yellowish brown, and, though often colored to represent pine marten or sable, the practised eye can easily distinguish it from them. The best specimens of the fur are obtained in Europe, where it is much used; but in this country, at the present time, it is not used at all. The skins of the fisher or pennant's marten, whose fur is quite valuable, are also exported. Less than 10,000 are caught yearly.
The mink is constantly found in almost every part of North America, some 250,000 being taken annually; yet, contrary to the general rule, it has been a very fashionable fur here for several years, for muffs, collars, etc. The color of the finest is chestnut-brown, glossed with black. The lighter colored is of less value, but it is often dyed so as to deceive the ignorant or unobserving. Dealers sometimes call it American sable. We occasionally hear of attempts to tame the mink, and raise it on a large scale in a minkery or suitable place of confinement. The present high price of the fur presents a strong inducement, but I do not know that there is any prospect of success.
The ermine is abundant in the northern parts of Asia, Europe, and America, about 400,000 being taken yearly. It is much smaller than the sable. In summer it is of a yellowish brown, and is then called a stoat; and its fur is known among furriers by the name of roselet. In winter, at the north, it becomes a pure white, and extremely beautiful. Farther south, the change from brown to white is less perfect. The end of the tail remains black during the year. It was formerly very valuable, and was much used in England to line the official robes of judges and magistrates. It is still considered a choice fur. The color of the Canada lynx is light gray, waved with black. Its fur is long, fine, and very thick, and furnishes a most beautiful material for robes, ladies' sets, trimmings, etc. Some 50,000 skins are sent to market each year. The Siberian squirrel is a neat, lively, active little animal. Its fur in winter is short and silky, and of a pretty gray color. The skins are used quite extensively for making ladies' sets and children's furs; several millions being taken annually.
The seal is a quadruped which spends the larger portion of its time in the water, and whose shape very much resembles that of a fish. Its neck is short, its body is tapering from the shoulders, and its legs or flippers very much resemble fins. It can stay a long time under water without breathing, at which time it can close its nostrils and ears. The species are numerous, differ greatly in size, and are found in almost every part of the world, but abound mostly in the higher latitudes. They live upon fish and other aquatic animals, eat their food in the water, but in fine weather they prefer the ice, or the rocks and sand on shore, on which to sleep, to bask in the sun, or to play. The harp seal furnishes the Esquimaux and Greenlanders with food, clothing, light, covering for their boats, and other articles of convenience. The eyes of seals are dark and lustrous, their sense of hearing acute, and they delight in musical sounds. Their heads so much resemble the human form, and their movements are so graceful, that the ancient poets found co difficulty in transforming them, in imagination, into tritons, sirens, nereids, etc., and making them the companions of Neptune. The tales of mermaids and mermen, by modern sailors, are usually caused by them, though the manatus may sometimes be the cause of the illusion. Several species have a fine, close fur. Others, like the common seal, have only coarse hair. The skins of these, when dressed with the hair on, are used to cover trunks, to make gloves, soldiers' caps, etc. The skins of the sea-bear, or fur-seal, are extensively used for gentlemen's and ladies' sets, and for various other purposes. The
A few years ago, a large number of skins, of what was then called in Britain the common fur-seal of commerce, was obtained from the islands of the Southern Ocean. Instead of taking a moderate number, and allowing the supply to be kept up, those engaged in the business made an indiscriminate slaughter of the animals, and in a few years
nearly exterminated them. In South Shetland, it was estimated that they killed 320,000; in the Island of Desolation, or Kerguelen, more than 1,000,000; and in South Georgia 1,200,000. The fur of this seal is of a uniform brownish-white color above, and of a somewhat deep brown beneath. The fur-skin of this valuable animal is prepared in a peculiar manner. The long hair which conceals the fur is first removed, by heating the skin, and then carding it with a large wooden knife. The fur then appears in all its perfection, and was formerly much used in Europe for linings and borders of cloaks and mantles, for caps, etc.
But by far the most valuable fur that passes under the name of seal is that of the sea otter, or Alaska seal, which, while it has the habits of the seal, forms a connecting link between it and the otter. A large portion of this fur is obtained from two islands, St. Paul and St. George, in latitude about 56½° north, in the Sea of Behring or Kamtchatka, about 250 miles northwest of the peninsula of Alaska. These islands were sold by Russia to the United States as a part of the Alaska territory. When, in 1869, General George H. Thomas was sent by our government to examine and report upon the country, he estimated the fur-bearing seals, or sea-otters, seen each summer on these islands, at from 5,000,000 to 15,000,000, lying in the rookeries, and covering hundreds of acres. For the last fifty or sixty years, the Russian Government had limited the number of skins to be taken yearly to some 80,000 or less. As General Thomas recommended that the hunting and killing of these animals should be regulated by law, Congress, in 1870, adopted substantially the Russian system; and in a few weeks the Alaska Company, of which Hon. Henry P. Haven,
of New London, Connecticut, is a prominent owner and influential officer, leased from the United States the islands of St. Paul and St. George. The company contracted to pay a rent of $55,000 per annum, and a revenue tax of $2.62½ on each fur-seal taken and shipped from the islands. Two United States officials are stationed on each of these islands to see that the company complies with the conditions of the lease, and to count the skins as they are shipped to San Francisco, where they are again counted by the custom-house officers. The number taken annually must not exceed 100,000. The catch in 1872 amounted to 96,069 skins. The sea-otter is the boldest swimmer of the amphibious tribe, for troops of them are met with 300 miles from land. When holding a fore-paw over their eyes, in order to look about them with more distinctness, they are called sea-apes. They are exclusively found in the North Pacific Ocean and on its borders, between the 49th and 60th degrees of latitude; and, although living mostly in the water, they are occasionally found on land very far from the sea. Their fur is exceedingly fine, close, soft, and velvety, perfectly black in full season, but at other times of a shining, deep sepia, or of a rich chestnut-brown. The longer hairs are silky and glossy, but not very numerous, and are easily removed. The Chinese prize the fur of the sea-otter so highly that formerly they paid for the skins from sixty to seventy-five dollars each; but they value them somewhat less now. It still remains the choicest, most expensive, and most fashionable, fur of its kind in the market for gentlemen's sets, ladies' sacques, turbans, boas, muffs, etc., and consequently all inferior furs that resemble it are made to imitate it.
Otters are fierce, wild, and shy, nocturnal in their habits, live much in the water, and feed upon fish, which they catch with great dexterity. They love to sport by sliding down a bank of snow in winter,
or clay in summer, especially when they can, at the bottom, plunge into water. The Canadian otter has long, glossy hair, of a dark color, and an inner fur, close, fine, and soft, of a deep, rich liver-brown. If the fur on any part of the skin lacks the right color, it is brought to the requisite tint by dyeing. The fur is much esteemed, and is used for caps, collars, gloves, etc., though much of it is exported to Europe. The number of otters taken yearly is supposed to be about 40,000.
Beavers have a broad, horizontally-flattened, and scaly tail, a webbed hind-foot, and a general form which is admirable for swimming. They live mostly in and near the water, in large companies, and their chief food is bark and aquatic plants, which they collect in large heaps for the winter. Their powerful teeth enable them to gnaw down trees, even of the hardest wood. To obtain a proper depth of running water, with a surface varying little in height, they build a dam on a stream to make a pond, in which to build houses for winter, using trees and branches mixed with stones and mud. They cut their wood up-stream, and float it down. The houses are built where the
water is several feet deep, and their only entrance is at the bottom. They are continued so much above the water as to admit of an upper, dry apartment, approached from the lower, and usually occupied by two or three families. The fur of the American beaver is of a uniform reddish brown, fine, thick, and of the best quality. It was formerly almost wholly used for making hats. It is used for that now; also for gentlemen's caps, mufflers, and gloves. A large portion of it is exported to England.
Nutria fur is obtained from the coypou, or couia, a South American animal resembling the beaver in size and habits, but having a long, round tail. Its similarity, or that of its fur, to the otter and muskrat, may be inferred from its names: nutria meaning otter, and myopotamus river-mouse. In fact, Molina speaks of the coypou as a species of water-rat, of the size and color of the otter. In the workshops it is called the South American monkey. It has long, ruddy hair, and a short, brownish, ash-colored fur, of considerable value, which has been largely exported to Europe for making hats. It has also been much used here for hats, gentlemen's sets, and other purposes. The fur somewhat resembles that of the beaver, as well as the otter. It is estimated that 3,000,000 are caught annually.
The muskrat, or musquash, is a native of North America, much smaller than the beaver, but with habits and appearance somewhat similar. Muskrats feed upon mussels, aquatic plants, and roots of grasses, and build winter-huts of sticks, grass, and mud, with an entrance under water, leading to a dry apartment above. In summer they dwell in extensive burrows along the banks of the rivers. The trapper, walking on the bank, hears the muskrat run from his hole into the water, observes where he stirs the mud, and puts the trap quietly down there. The number of skins taken yearly by trap and gun is immense; over 3,000,000. Many are manufactured into hats on both sides of the Atlantic, more than a million being exported annually to England for that purpose. Besides hats, they are used here largely for men's gloves, ladies' sets, robes, etc. They are frequently dyed to imitate mink, and are then called Alaska mink. They are also plucked and dyed to imitate seal and similar furs.
The chinchilla is scarcely larger than a rat, and inhabits the cold mountain-regions of Chili and Peru. It is chiefly remarkable for its exquisitely fine fur, which is very soft, and of a pearly gray. It is used for ladies' and children's sets, but more especially for lining and trimming cloaks, pelisses, and other articles of clothing. Not more than 100,000 are taken yearly.
The fur of the northern hare, which is white in winter and brown in summer, is mostly used in the manufacture of hats. The skins of the common European rabbit or French cony are used for ladies' sets and children's furs. The fur is also used for hats. Several millions are taken each year.
The fur of the skunk is used, under the name of Alaska sable, for ladies' sets, sacque-trimmings, etc., of an inferior quality. The black portions of the skin are sometimes carefully selected, completely de-odorized, made into sets of furs of the natural color, and sold under the name of black marten. The pole-cat, or fitchet weasel, has long, coarse, dark-brown hair, and an under-coat of short, silky, pale-yellow fur. This fur, though inferior, is imported and used for ladies' sets, etc., and is sold under the name of fitch. The Virginia opossum has the habit of feigning itself dead if slightly struck or wounded, but, if seriously attacked and badly hurt, it will fight bravely. Its fur is a long, woolly down, which is of a dingy white. Though of little value, the fur is colored so as to resemble fitch, and is sold under that name.
The color of the arctic fox during winter is a pure white; in summer, brown, gray, or bluish. It is then called a cross or pied fox. The fur is long, fine, and woolly, and is occasionally used here for ladies' sets and other purposes, but it is mostly exported to Europe;
as are also the skins of the red fox and its varieties, the cross fox and the silver or black fox. The color of an adult silver fox when in prime fur is a deep, glossy black, with a silvery grizzle on the fore-head and flanks. This variety is extremely rare, and its rich fur is. more valuable than that of any other quadruped. The skin of the silvery fox of Labrador has been sold in London for $500.
The panda, or wah, of the Himalaya Mountains, is about the size of a large cat. It is covered with a soft, thickly-set fur, which, above, is of the richest cinnamon red; behind, of a fawn color; and, beneath, of a deep black—while its head is whitish, and its tail like a lady's boa, and banded with red and yellow. Fred. Cuvier calls this the most beautiful of known quadrupeds.
The color of the raccoon is light gray overlaid with black-tipped hairs. The outer hair is long and coarse, the inner softer and more like wool. The fur is mostly used for making hats. It is sometimes used for robes, as linings for garments, etc. About 500,000 skins are taken yearly. The hair of the badger is fine, silky, and very long, especially behind. At the roots it is of a yellowish gray, black in the middle, and white at the tip. The skins were formerly made into pouches by the Highlanders. The dressed skins make the best pistol-furniture, and the hair is much used to make artists' brushes for spreading the colors and softening the shades in painting. Some 50,000 skins are sent to market annually.
The white or polar bear is an enormous animal, weighing sometimes 1,000 or 1,500 pounds; is wholly carnivorous, and feeds upon seals and other animals. The fur is long, fine, soft, woolly, and of a silvery-white color tinged with yellow. Its skin makes a magnificent robe. In the northern regions the skins of bears furnish the most useful and comfortable winter apparel. They are made into beds, coverlets, caps, gloves, and other articles of clothing. The black bear has hair comparatively soft and glossy. Its skin is used for hammer-cloths of carriages, pistol-holsters, rugs, caps, etc. The cinnamon bear of the Rocky Mountains has a more valuable fur than that of the black bear, of which it appears to be a variety.
There are various other animals that furnish robes of different quality and appearance, such as the wolverine, or glutton, the wild-cat, the coyote, or prairie-wolf, the different varieties of the white wolf, which is sometimes called the mountain or timber wolf. The growing scarcity of wild animals, and the resources of modern art, are gradually introducing into use various fabrics as artificial robes, many of them convenient and comfortable, and some of them even elegant and very desirable.