The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Furs (skins)

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FURS are articles made from the skins of fur-bearing animals prepared with the hair left on. A fur-bearer, in the language and practice of the fur-trade, is an animal that has a short, fine, soft coat through which grow longer hairs. (For a list of fur-bearing animals and their residence, see Fur-Trade). This overhair is straight, smooth, somewhat stiff and serves as a protection against cold and wet. The beauty of such pelts as those of foxes and the weasel tribe is due largely to this long overhair, and when it is at its best, in preparation for winter, the animal is said to be “prime.” In some, however, as the otter, beaver and sometimes the skunk the pelt is improved for use by pulling or “plucking” out these long hairs. Conversely, long hairs are sometimes inserted, or “pointed,” into manufactured skins, as in making a fraudulent silver-fox.

The underfur, or “fur” proper, consists of soft, silky, curly filaments. It is usually short and thick, and toward the skin it grows lighter in color. It is barbed lengthwise and hence is capable of felting — whence the value of rabbit-fur in hat-molding. “In a prime pelt,” says Jones, “the underfur is hardly discernible unless the overhair is blown apart. Then the light color of the underfur appears. If it were generally known that the undyed skin is whitish, and that the underfur close to the skin is a light drab, or pale blue color, it would not be so easy to sell dyed skins as ‘natural.’ ”

Two methods are used in taking the pelt off the animal's body and saving it for market. The larger animals, as bear, wolf, wolverine, beaver and others, are regularly skinned and the hides are scraped clean of flesh, stretched on a flat surface and dried in a cool place. Small skins are opened by slitting inside the hind legs, the bones of which are removed, clipping and taking out the tail-bones and then stripping the skin from the body. The pelt, then wrong side out, is stretched by means of hoops or wedged boards fitted to each kind, cleaned and permitted to dry in this stretched form. This is called “casing.” Much of the value of the pelt depends on the care of this original preparation and the subsequent packing for shipment. Sealskins are packed with salt in barrels as soon as flayed.

Dressing and Dyeing.— Until the modern introduction of machinery, the dressing of the “raw” pelt began with the placing of them in a bath of lye. “When the pelt has become soft,” it was prescribed, “the skins are tubbed and then shaved, by passing them over a large knife, and placed in an upright position; they are next buttered, and put in a large tub of sawdust by men half naked, who tread on them for some time . . . rendering the leather soft and supple; they are then beaten out and finished.” The complicated operations of the art, varying with different pelts, are now performed mainly in great factories, and by special machinery. The process in general is as follows: The skins are first dampened on the flesh side and left all night to soften. In the morning they are placed, perhaps 2,000 at once, in a tramping-machine and kneaded for 8 or 10 hours, then taken out and left to soak over night in a mixture of brine and sawdust. The next morning they are fleshed by hand, then stretched and hung up to dry. When thoroughly dry they are again moistened with salt water and left over night. Brushed on the leather side with some animal oil or fat, they are then laid together in pairs, hair side out, and the next day are kneaded again in a tramping machine until perfectly soft and supple, after which they are stretched in every direction.

The next process is cleaning, 300 or 400 skins being placed in revolving drums exposed to steam heat, with sawdust which in time absorbs all their grease. The skins are next incased in a beating-drum, where they are revolved and hammered for two or three hours. On removal they are beaten by hand with rattans, and finally the hair is combed.

Well-dressed furs as clothing furnish a maximum of warmth with a minimum of weight, due to the air entangled among the hairs, excelling any practicable garment of cloth of the same shape. Their durability varies greatly, however. Jones gives a long table exhibiting the comparative value of most furs in this respect. The otters, both land and sea, are the most durable, and are reckoned at 100 per cent. Others follow: Beaver, .90; seal, .75; raccoon, .70; skunk, .70; Persian lamb, .65; martens and sable, .60 to .40; fox, .40; muskrat and opossum, .37; nutria, .27; and others from .25 down to hare or rabbit only .5. These facts should be borne in mind in purchasing any article made of fur.

The dyeing of furs is a distinct branch of the industry which heretofore has been almost wholly in German hands, except that until recently all seal-skins were dyed and otherwise dressed in England. Now, however, much of this preparation is done in Canada and the United States. The Bureau of Manufactures recorded that the value of the seal-skins prepared in this country in 1916 was $74,530.

Almost every sort of fur, raw as well as manufactured, has quadrupled in price during the last 30 years, although with many fluctuations. Coincidently, the demand for, and utilization of, furs in garments, and as trimmings, has enormously increased since the beginning of the present century. Political disturbances in Europe, and especially religious persecution, caused the emigration to western Europe, and to North America, of great numbers of workmen skilled in the preparation and sewing of skins and furs. This influx of comparatively cheap, yet competent labor, and other influences, led the capitalists of the trade, in concert with the controllers of fashion, to stimulate, and then to cope with, an unprecedented expansion in the use of ornamental furs — even in summer. This was followed by the setting up, almost wholly, as is natural, by Russian and Polish Jews, of thousands of small factories in every large town. Meanwhile the decreasing supply of first-class skins, competition resulting from the wide diffusion of business and much doubtful responsibility, and the great demand for showy appearance at a cheap rate, have led to a sad disguising and counterfeiting of materials by means of dyeing, manipulation and the invention of trade-names.

The deceptive misnaming of furs is encouraged by the ignorance of buyers, most of whom are willing to believe it when told by an unscrupulous salesman that a cape or muff offered at a ridiculously small price is true sable or seal or other rare and expensive article. It will be interesting and useful to mention some of the frauds constantly perpetrated — though less so than formerly. Take, for instance, sable. Precisely, it is the pelt of the Siberian marten, of which only about 75,000 skins were received annually previous to 1914, worth wholesale perhaps a million dollars. The price of even a small cape of Russian sables must be reckoned in three or four figures. But experts tell us that most “sables” in the fur-shops are made of dyed skins of the Canadian or pine marten, or of polecat, or mink, or plucked skunk (“Alaska sable”), muskrat, marmot, hare or even rabbit. Genuine sealskin now has a price far beyond the reach of ordinary purses; but when the fur-dressers produced a clipped and dyed muskrat pelt that resembled sealskin almost perfectly it could be sold far cheaper — not, however, under its own name. Consequently this popular, and even now, high-priced product is sold as “Hudson Bay seal” (no true fur-seals live or ever did live in Hudson Bay; and the seals that do live there are not used). The fur of the common wild rabbit of Europe and elsewhere is the raw material of “electric seal,” “clipped seal” and “Baltic seal.” The rabbit and hare indeed may become almost anything in the hands of fur-dressers and salesmen. When white it may masquerade as coney, ermine, white fox, “foxaline,” “mock fox” or “chinchilla,” and when dyed may become seal of various trade varieties, sable or French sable, fox, lynx, marten, fisher, chinchilla and “muskrat-coney.” Skunk fur was formerly disguised under more elegant names as Alaska sable, black marten, etc., but its beauty and really excellent quality have become recognized and it is now sold for what it is; and curiously the Australian wallaby (a kangaroo) often figures in the market as skunk. Nutria, the fur of a South American aquatic rodent, is so nearly like beaver and otter, that it ekes out those rare skins without much harm; but it also becomes “seal.” Black domestic cats are valuable as fur-bearers and their coats go to market as “genet,” and the ponies and great dogs of Tibet, Manchuria and western China furnish thousands of shaggy hides to the modern furrier. Finally the demand for furs of high class is being met by breeding in captivity foxes, martens, skunks, Astrakan sheep and other animals yielding valuable pelts.

The United States is not only a large producer, but the greatest consumer of furs. Our export of skins in 1916 were valued at $9,288,786, and our imports of furs and fur-manufactures at $16,891,699.

Ernest Ingersoll.