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Hats and the Fur Trade

  • J. F. Crean (a1)


This paper is an attempt to describe developments in the European hatting industry as a background to the evolution of the North American beaver trade. Most studies of the fur trade trace the movement of the furs no further than the fur market; interest is centred on production and marketing with insufficient attention directed to the ultimate sources of the demand. Vague references to style changes usually suffice as explanations of long-run demand movements. There were, however, certain technological discoveries and evolutions in hat-making which underlie both the style changes and the long-run demand fluctuations. My intent is to examine these developments and to relate them to the Canadian fur trade.

The cornerstone of this essay is L'Art de faire des chapeaux, by M. I'Abbé Nollet, published at Paris in 1765. This mid-eighteenth century work examines the sources of raw materials, the methods of production, and the history of the French hatting industry. In order to understand the industrial background against which this book was written and to explain several of the references Nollet makes, it is necessary to begin with a history of the felt hat industry. In sketching this history I have drawn extensively on other sources. Some of the hypotheses advanced in Section I may be open to question; the evidence upon which they are based is fragmentary, and I have had to content myself with material in secondary sources. In later parts of the paper I shall compare L'Art de faire des chapeaux with the article on hatting in Diderot's Encyclopedia published in 1753.



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1 To my father, Mr. J. G. Crean, this essay owes its inception. Over a period of thirty-odd years he has been collecting material on the history of hat manufacturing both from printed works and from discussions with hatters. Without his collection of source materials, and without his guidance, this essay could not have been written. I am further indebted to Professor J. H. Dales for whom this essay was originally written. He has provided me with many useful criticisms and suggestions.

The author, an undergraduate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, is a member of the hat manufacturing firm of Robert Crean and Company Limited, Toronto.

2 Petit Larousse mentions a Nollet: “Nollet (abbé Jean Antoine), physicien français, né à Pimprez (Oise) (1700–1770). On lui doit la découverte de l'endosmose et l'étude de nombreux phénomènes électrostatiques.”

3 Encyclopédia ou Dictionaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers, par une Société de gens lettrés, Tome III (Paris, 1753). I shall refer subsequently to this work simply as the Encyclopedia; all references are to pages in Tome III. There is evidence, both of style and of material, that either Nollet relied extensively on the article in the Encyclopedia for his book, or that he was the author of both; the latter is the more likely. The translations from both these works are my own.

4 For an illustrated description of the method these nomads used to felt their tents, see a short description of the Morden-Clark Asiatic Expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural Historv, in the Supplement to Hat Life, Jan., 1947.

5 See below, 385.

6 The Hat,” Ciba Review, no. 35, 09, 1940, p. 1253.

7 Fisher, H. A. L., A History of Europe (London, 1936), 402.

8 Encyclopedia Britannica, 1947 ed., III, 282 b.

9 History of Europe, 375.

10 Carroting is the chemical treatment of fur to increase its felting quality. It tends to turn the tips of the fur a yellowish-red “carrot-like” colour. The method, introduction, and importance of this technique is described in detail below.

11 Nollet, , L'Art de faire des chapeaux (hereafter L'Art), 18.

12 The application to fur did not involve any great technological change; it was only with the evolution of modern machinery that the processes of wool and fur felt manufacturing began to differ. In the old hat industry the distinction between wool and fur, as far as felting was concerned, was one of degree rather than of kind. Wool and fur were mixed together to vary the quality and the cost; the higher the wool content, the cheaper the hat.

13 See Manchester, H. H., Sixty Centuries of Hat Making (New York: E. V. Connett and Co., 1915), 11.

14 Ibid., 10. There is both a description and an illustration of this shield.

Then as now, the hat was made by stretching out a felt cone. The cone was made from two separate triangular battes of fur, one placed on top of the other with a slightly smaller triangular piece of silk or paper between them. This arrangement allowed two of the edges of the triangle to felt together as the battes were shrunk down to make the felt; the result was a cone. The operation requiring the most skill was the forming of the battes with the hatter's bow, an instrument rather like an oversized violin bow. Its tautly stretched cord was inserted into a pile of fur and vibrated in such a manner and direction as to fluff up and evenly distribute the fur in the required triangular shape.

15 Rich, E. E., Hudson's Bay Company (London: Hudson's Bay Record Society, 1958), 393–4.

16 Nollet remarks that “if there are any beaver to be found in Muscovie, in Poland, or elsewhere as is rumoured, it must be in too small quantities to be traded” (p. 7). This remark is made specifically in the context of a discussion about beaver for felting; the suggestion seems to be that some of this Russian beaver had been used in Western European felt hats. Russian beaver, then, was nothing but a vague and distant memory. There must have been a hiatus between the period when the trade could depend upon the Russian source of supply and the opening up of the new sources in North America. There certainly was no large and specific demand for North American beaver during the sixteenth century.

At this point I cannot help speculating about the two French words for beaver. “Bièvre” is the Old French word, and is still to be found in some place names–there is a Rue de Bièvre in Paris. Bièvre is of teutonic etymology. The modern French word is castor, and comes from Greek and Latin. Could not bièvre have referred only to those beaver pelts or skins coming down to France from the North? After all, it would have been only natural to accept the terminology of the suppliers. When the North American animal was discovered around 1500, the Latin word would be nearest at hand for the explorers who were not familiar with hatting or its terminology.

17 L'Art, 13.

18 Canterbury Tales, Prologue, 1. 272.

19 Told to my father by M. M. Cassé, a well-known French hatter.

20 L'Art, Supplement concernant l'Histoire de la Chapelerie, 89.

21 “The Hat,” 1257.

22 L'Art, Supplément, 89.

23 174.

24 L'Art, Supplément, 89.

25 “The Hat,” 1258.

26 Innis, H. A., The Fur Trade in Canada (Toronto, 1956), 11. Innis then goes on to quote from the early historian, Lescarbot: “… in the time of Jacques Cartier, beavers were held in no esteem; the hats made thereof are in use only since that time; though the discovery thereof is not new, for in the ancient privileges of the hat-makers of Paris, it is said that they are to make hats of fine beaver (which is the same animal); but whether for the dearness or otherwise the use thereof had long since been left off. ( Lescarbot, Marc, The History of New France, ed. Grant, W. L. and Biggar, H. P., III, 117.)”

This is an interesting statement by Lescarbot; it is to my knowledge the only indication that the art of making felt hats from beaver was known and/or practised in France in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Lescarbot's comment that “the use thereof had long since been left off” is reasonable, the dearness being caused by the resource depletion of the European beaver.

27 L'Arf, 13. However, the bad felting qualities of hare and rabbit can to a great extent be compensated for in exactly the same way the good felting qualities of castor sec can be made even better—by the addition of castor gras to the fur mixture. When a pure beaver hat is made, castor gras and castor sec are combined in the ratio of one to four or five. However, when rabbit and hare are used in combination with beaver, far more castor gras than castor sec would have to be included.

Innis's statement (The Fur Trade in Canada, p. 64) that hatters used castor gras and castor sec in the ratio of three to one would indicate that large quantities of hare and rabbit fur were being used. As early as 1664 the use of these substitute furs was having a sufficiently detrimental effect on the value of the royally granted monopoly of the fur trade that the authorities stepped in and forbade their use. The fact that it is virtually impossible to tell from the finished hat what furs have been used in its manufacture would explain the complete ineffectiveness of the act and its numerous successors. (Also see n. 37.)

28 The same effect was produced by the combination of aging and Indian perspiration in the case of castor gras. Due to the poisonous effects of contact with mercury, a substitute carrot has been developed in this century, and the mercury carrot is no longer much used. It is forbidden in North America. The mercury, getting into the hatter's system, will make him tremble; this, we are told, is the origin of the phrase, “mad as a hatter.” In any event the phrase certainly antedates Lewis Carroll.

29 L'Art, 13.

30 162.

31 Nollet says that if beaver is seen to be too fresh when it arrives at the hatmaker's, it has to be aged by being left in special drums for at least a year. This would be an additional expense on beaver, for other furs can be used for felt much sooner after leaving the animal. (L'Art, 18)

32 Ibid., 14.

33 Encyclopedia, 163.

34 L'Art, 18–19. This would apply to beaver too; not as much castor gras would be needed.

35 “xhis preparation … was not used in earlier times; it is a practice which has been used for scarcely thirty years from this date in France. Without it there are certain furs which will not felt, or which felt badly; such is the hare, which, for this reason, was expressly forbidden in hats. Perhaps the reason that the prohibition is clung to [by the authorities] was to accredit and to add to the value of the trade in beaver, which is the exclusive privilege the King has given to the Compagnie des Indes.” L'Art, 6.

36 Ibid., 90.

37 Ibid., 16. Innis in The Fur Trade in Canada, 74, n. 121, says: “By the 1650's because of the expense of beaver fur from Canada, it became customary to make ‘half-beaver’ hats, of a mixture of half beaver and half a cheaper fur. In 1664 the manufacture of such adulterated hats was forbidden under penalty of a fine of 200 livres and confiscation of wares.” By 1765 “Demi-Castor” was no more than a name, any significance in the appellation having long since disappeared. The ban had been lifted in 1706.

38 The veneer on a hat is simply a thin layer of expensive lustrous fur applied to the hat shordy after the battes were formed and during the shrinking process. It made the hat look much more expensive, even though it would not wear as well as the better hat.

39 L'Art, 6.

40 Ibid., 9.

41 This equalizing of good castor gras and good castor sec prices was probably partly the result of the introduction of carroting; the process, by making sec substitutable for gras, would link the two furs together in price more firmly than did the old type of carrot.

42 L'Art, 20.

43 “The first hats were made with wool from sheep and lambs; the majority are still made of this material today because there is none which is cheaper and which is at the same time as feltable.” Ibid., 3. This passage is an indication of the size of the low-priced hat industry.

44 Lawson, M. G., Fur: A Study in English Mercantilism (Toronto, 1943), 78. “The re-emergence of France as a dangerous competitor about the middle of the eighteenth century would seem to give credence to the story first proclaimed by Erman and Reclam [about 1780 to 1790] … that the Huguenots, when they fled France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, took with them certain secrets of their profession, which were then lost to France until about the middle of the next century, when they were re-learned by a French hatter working in London and brought back to France.” P. 22, n. 64. Could this be a reference to Mathieu?

45 Ibid., 2, n. 5.

46 The Fur Trade in Canada, 12.

47 Nollet notes that once hatters' demand for rabbit and hare fur was established, its prices rose considerably (pp. 9–10).

Hats and the Fur Trade

  • J. F. Crean (a1)


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