The New International Encyclopædia/Fur and the Fur Trade

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FUR and the Fur Trade. (OF. forre, fuerre, It. fodero, case, sheath, from Goth, fōdr, AS. fōdder, OHG. fuotar, Ger. Futter, sheath). Many species of animals, especially those living in cold climates, have a soft, silky covering called fur, which in some animals is mixed with a covering entirely different in texture, long and straight, called the over-hair. It is often this over-hair which gives the distinctive peculiarity and beauty to the fur. The use of the skins of beasts with the fur still on them, as clothing, is of very ancient origin. The Chinese and Japanese used furs as articles of luxury at least 2500 years ago. Herodotus mentions their use by other ancient peoples. By the Romans furs were much prized, especially during the later days of the Empire. The Saracens also made great use of them, and from them the Crusaders brought them into general favor in Europe, where so much extravagance was exhibited in their use that in both France and England sumptuary edicts were issued against this fashion. But such laws, like most regulations of the sort, had little effect, and the demand for furs continued among all classes of people. It was to meet this demand that those pioneer explorers, the trappers and traders, penetrated the northern forests of America, and established little trading stations which proved the vanguards of civilization. Albany and Saint Louis, and many other flourishing American cities, are the outgrowth of these stations. In the early days the most valuable furs could be obtained from the Indians in exchange for glass beads or other trifles. At one time this trade was carried on, especially in Canada, by coureurs des bois; but the scandalous practices of these reckless rangers brought the trade into such disrepute that a licensing system was established.

Beaver-skins were used in New Amsterdam and elsewhere in place of gold and silver for currency, and the figure of a beaver is a conspicuous device on the escutcheon of the city of New York. The search for furs was one of the objects of the daring expeditions of the voyagers of French Canada, as the search for gold was the motive of the Spanish invasion of Mexico and South America. The famous Hudson Bay Company originated in 1670, and claimed the entire country from the Bay to the Pacific, and from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean, except such portions as were then occupied by Frenchmen and Russians. Toward the close of the eighteenth century, certain Canadian merchants formed the Northwest Fur Company, having their headquarters at Montreal, their operations being carried on in the districts watered by rivers that flow to the Pacific. This organization soon became a formidable competitor to the Hudson Bay Company. In 1821 the two companies united. In 1763 some merchants of New Orleans established a fur-trading post where Saint Louis now stands, under the management of the brothers Chouteau. For the first half of the nineteenth century the Saint Louis trade was from $200,000 to $300,000 a year. One of the most famous of early American fur-traders was John Jacob Astor, of New York, who began by trading in a small way after his arrival in the country in 1784. By 1810-12 his trade, conducted under the name of the American Fur Company, was enormous. An entirely new field for American enterprise was opened by the purchase of Alaska in 1867, which secured complete control of an important seal-fishery. This field was so eagerly worked that it was found necessary to limit the taking of seals to the bachelor males, lest the animals should be altogether exterminated.

Collectors and dealers in 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 Leipzig. Of the fur marts, London is the chief; for thither tends, by the laws of trade, not only much of the produce of Asia and Europe, but also the fine peltries of Chile 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.

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 over-hair; and these differences 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, although there are some notable exceptions. Being thus few in kind, and limited in quantity, the extinction of the several choice varieties has been threatened through the persistent energy of trappers.

The principal North American fur-bearing animals are beaver, muskrat, hare, and squirrel; the mink, sable, fisher, ermine, weasel, raccoon, badger, and skunk; the lynx, northern and southern; bears of several kinds; foxes of three or four varieties; two wolves; and most valuable of all, musk-ox, seal, and sea-otter. Of foreign fur-bearing animals the most highly prized are the chinchilla, coypu (nutria), and various monkeys, marsupials (opossum, kangaroo, etc.), and cats. (See articles under their names; also, Fur-Bearing Animals.) Many of the animals, however, enumerated in the American list are also natives of Northern Europe, whence their pelts come to market under other names.

For manufacturing purposes, furs are classified into felted and dressed. Felted furs, such as beaver, nutria, hare, and rabbit, are used for hats and other felted fabrics, in which the hairs or filaments are made so to interlace or entangle as to form a very strong and close plexus. The quality of the fur is better when the skin is taken from the animal in winter than in any other season, giving rise to the distinction between ‘seasoned’ and ‘unseasoned’ skins. The removal of the fur from the pelt is a necessary preliminary to the preparation of fur for felting purposes. The long hairs are cut off by a kind of shears; and the true fur is then removed by the action of a knife, requiring much care in its management. In some sorts of skin the long hairs are removed by pulling instead of shearing; in others, the greasiness of the pelt renders necessary a cleansing process, with the aid of soap and boiling water, before the shearing can be conducted; and in others, both pelt and fur are so full of grease as to require many repetitions of cleansing. For beaver-skins a machine of special construction is employed in cutting the fur from the pelt.

Furs have their felting property sometimes increased by the process of carroting, in which the action of heat is combined with that of sulphuric acid. The chief employment of felted furs is described under Hat Manufacture. See also Felt.

Dressed furs are those to which the art of the furrier is applied for making muffs, boas, and fur trimmings for garments. The fur is not separated from the pelt for these purposes; the two are used together; and the pelt is converted into a kind of leather to fit it for being so employed.

The process of dressing furs, while in its general outlines the same, differs in its details with the character of the fur. The fur of the seal is prepared as follows: The salt used in packing is first thoroughly washed out, and every particle of flesh is carefully removed from the inside of the hide, after which the skins are stretched on frames and slowly dried. The process of thorough washing, this time in soap-suds, is repeated, and while the skin is still moist the long over-hair is removed with a knife, leaving only the short soft fur. This process is a delicate and tedious one. The skin side of the pelts, after being subjected to moist heat, is shaved down until a smooth, even surface is obtained. When the skin is again dry it is placed in a tub filled with fine hardwood sawdust, which absorbs any moisture remaining, and is softened and rendered flexible by treading with the bare feet. It is now ready to be dyed. The coloring matter is applied with a brush to the tips of the fur and distributed by shaking the fur. It is then dried and brushed. The process of dyeing, drying, and brushing is often repeated as many as twelve times.