Albert Lord Belden.

The fur trade of America and some of the men who made and maintain it, together with furs and fur bearers of other continents and countries and islands of the sea online

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Online LibraryAlbert Lord BeldenThe fur trade of America and some of the men who made and maintain it, together with furs and fur bearers of other continents and countries and islands of the sea → online text (page 11 of 34)
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and dyed, and considerably increased in price.

American jFur=Pearet2!

Many of the more important fur-bearing animals,
considered from the standpoints of quahty and quantity,
abound in the United States ; some of the various species
are noted in detail in the pages immediately following,
and others will be accorded due notice in the division of
the work separately devoted to Canada.


A mature sea otter varies from forty to sixty
inches, and in instances exceeds six feet in length, in-
cluding the short tail; the skin sets loosely on the body
of the animal, and may be stretched moderately in excess
of the apparent size. Marked variations are noted in
the color of the fur; the predominant hue is a rich,
lustrous black, interspersed with glistening silvery hairs
irregularly distributed over the surface of the dense fur
on the back and sides of the animal — such skins are
designated "silvery." Other specimens are deep brown
shading into black; some are a beautiful dark plum
color, many are bluish-grey, and a few show a yellowish
tinge; the under portion of the body is in all specimens
lighter in color than the back.

Black, silvery pelts are considered the most beauti-
ful, and invariably bring the highest price — somewhere
near the two thousand dollar mark for an exceptionally
fine skin.

The sea otter is an amphibious animal, and is found
on the great Kelp beds along the Pacific Coast, the north-
ern shores of Siberia, on the several islands adjacent to
Alaska, and at Kamtchatka.



Somewhat less than a century ago it was estimated
that upwards of fifty thousand might be taken in a year,
but ruthless slaughter reduced the number to a few hun-
dred at the close of the nineteenth century, and at the
present time very few remain, and these would un-
doubtedly be caught in a year except for the protection
accorded by government regulations.

The fur of the sea otter is indescribably beautiful,
attractive and luxurious, and exceptionally durable, a
combination constituting it intrinsically the most valu-
able of all furs — in instances a single black fox pelt, pur-
chased on speculation, has brought a higher figure than
a sea otter pelt, but the exceptional difference was not
a criterion of value.

For hundreds of years the fur of the sea otter was
in good demand in China, being extremely popular
with the court at Peking, and Mandarins at the north;
for many years this lucrative trade was supplied by
Russian merchants, the skins being collected at and



shipped from Onalaska; in later years Spanish and
American merchants, operating on the Pacific Coast,
largely participated in the trade.

Fur of the sea otter has long occupied a leading
position in favor with the royal family and the nobility
of Russia, who fully realize its many incomparable
qualities — beauty, attractiveness, comfort and dura-
bility ; this costly fur is used in Russia for lining cloaks,
loose wraps and men's great coats, for making attached
and detachable coat collars, small garments, superb
muffs, and chiefly as a border or trimming for coats
and wraps composed of various furs, silk, velvet or
extremely fine cloths.


The mink belongs to the weasel family, of which it
is one of the larger members, and though found in
many parts of the world varies considerably in size,
color, luster and density of fur, qualities determining
trade value; mink of the better grade, as regards size,
color, sheen and richness of fur, have their habitat in the
United States and portions of Canada; the best furred
and darkest are found in Nova Scotia, other small sec-
tions of Canada, and the New England States; very
good skins are regularly procured in New Jersey, New
York State and adjacent localities. Larger mink yield-
ing fur of medium quality are found in Alaska, of lower
grade in the Western States, and smaller and inferior
specimens abound in the South ; the mink touching either
extreme in size, six or twenty-five inches in length, with
rare exceptions, has a coat of short, coarse fur of poor
color, and consequently comparatively small value.

The color of mink fur varies greatly, ranging from

MINK 191

pale brown, tending to yellow, through all the shades of
brown to nearly black; a line or stripe of black runs
down the back from heal to tail, adding much to the
beauty and distinctive character of the pelt and gar-
ments made of it.

The mink, with some exceptions, has a small white
or pale yellow spot on the throat, and a dark spot of fur,
inferior in density and luster, on either side of the head ;
these off-color fractions are cut out of the skin and
sewed together into coat linings; expert fur sewers


piece together from eight to twenty of these spots in a
block of four square inches, and from two to four thou-
sand are required to form a lining.

The furry tail of the mink, varying from six to
eight inches in length, and which is dark brown to
brilliant black in color, is split lengthwise on the under
side, spread flat, and then a number of the tails are
sewed together, side to side, to form a handsome trim-
ming for finishing the bottom of a mink wrap, or gar-
ment of a different fur, velvet, plush or fine cloth.

The long over-hairs, which are remarkably lustrous,
rather than the soft under fur, constitute the real beauty
of mink; this quality mark is most pronounced in skins
taken in December and January, at which time the fur
is densest and most brilliant. If caught too early in the
autumn the under fur and long hairs of the mink are

192 MINK

not fully developed in quantity and luster ; if caught too
late in winter many of the glossy hairs are broken or
rubbed off, owing to the fact that in seeking food, woe-
fully scarce "midst snow and ice," the animal enters
every discovered opening in earth or stump or log,
many of which are too small to permit the ready passage
of the body of the hungry hunter, with the result stated

If caught too late in the spring the fur will be "off
color," or faded, and much of its beauty will have
vanished owing to the absence of a large proportion of
the long hairs, as the animal sheds its fur and hair as
the days perceptibly lengthen and the temperature rises.

Mink fur, caught at the proper time and in best
sections, is not surpassed in attractiveness, and on ac-
count of its great durability is the most economical fur
to purchase for personal use, even when ruling high in
price; but while it is in every respect worthy of the ut-
most favor of the "four hundred," the really superior
thousands and the multitude, like all articles of apparel
it is subject to the whims of fashion, coming into favor
with a rush, and going out at a bound, but too truly of
standard worth to pass wholly into the discard; con-
sumers who best know the superior qualities of mink,
and who can afford to be indifferent to fickle fashion,
wear mink at will — and every season many wisely will.

When mink strongly waxes or wanes in fashionable
favor the price per skin increases or decreases to an
incredible amount, remembering that the intrinsic value
has not changed; in i860 prime eastern skins in the raw
were worth ten dollars each, and advanced to fifteen
dollars prior to the close of the war of the Rebellion;
at the public sales in London in March, 1866, similar

MINK 198

skins brought less than nine dollars, in the spring of
1878 about three dollars, and in 1883 o"^ dollar and
fifty cents ; the swing back to ten dollars was not com-
pleted until near the beginning of the second decade of
the twentieth century. A decline in price immediately
followed the outbreak of war in 19 14.

Not all manufactures of mink are strictly what
they seem to be; when the finest dark skins are very
high in price, inferior sorts are darkened, or "blended,"
by applying a tincture to the fur; some blended skins
are sold as natural eastern ; the deception is not prac-
ticed by reliable furriers.

Lady Newrich or Madame Pride, just to be a little
different from the "common run," may desire a mink
cape thirty inches in depth ; nature's offering consists of
skins close to twenty-four inches in length, manifestly a
little short ; ^ skilled fur worker can increase the
natural length by piecing on part of another skin, and
do it well, but not "so that you wouldn't notice it" by
comparison with selected eastern skins made up on order
regardless of cost. A few furriers, and only a few, have
mastered the art of lengthening a mink skin within cer-
tain limits; the workman very skillfully effects the de-
sired result by cutting little notches in the skin, the
leather side; these small slits are cut from right to left
and then vice versa along each side of the pelt from the
head downward to the end, and the skin is then gently
pulled lengthwise until the notches are drawn out and
the sides of the pelt again become straight edges.

A cape of lengthened dark mink skins, finished
with mink tail border, will attract general attention on

194 MINK

account of the unusual depth and beauty of the skins
composing it.

Mink fur is used in making superb cloaks, coats,
capes, and fitted jackets, collars, stoles, scarfs, muffs,
and ladies' hats; it is also particularly attractive as a
wide or narrow trimming, or a lining for men's coats of
best quality. This choice American fur is worn at
home, and is accepted on merit abroad.


The North American beaver is about forty inches
in length, and has a well proportioned body; the raw
skin as sent to market is stretched "open," and varies
from oval to nearly circular in form.

The beaver is found in many parts of the United
States and Canada, and formerly was abundant in all
sections, but owing to the fact that the animal builds
very noticeable dams and houses, the comparative ease
with which it may be captured, and a strong continuous
demand at remunerative prices, the beaver has totally
disappeared from many places, and the annual collec-
tion of skins, formerly exceeding a quarter of a million,
has declined to less than one-half that total. For a
long term of years the Hudson's Bay Company alone
secured upwards of two hundred thousand beaver skins
annually, and the catch remained above the one hundred
thousand mark until about 1890 — ^but has not approached
that figure since.

Trappers and hunters in years agone captured the
beaver both by shooting and trapping, but for an ex-
tended period traps only have been used, as shooting


damages the pelt, and causes the animals to leave the

From the date of its discovery in America the
beaver has been persistently hunted and trapper pur-
sued wherever found, in many districts, down to the
last member of the colony; long before America was
known the beaver was hunted and skillfully trapped by
native red men for its fur and as an article of food.
The trapping of the beaver was readily taken up by the
earliest settlers in America, who later employed Indians
to procure beaver skins in quantity, and skins brought
in by the latter were always in good demand because
carefully and correctly handled.

In skinning the beaver, experienced trappers cut
the skin down the center of the abdomen from the root
of the tail to the head, and after carefully removing it
from the carcass spread it out flat to dry; to prevent
curling or shrinking the pelt is sewn all aroimd the edge
to a hoop, or a strong withe bent and fastened in circular
form ; beaver skins are also dried on board frames of
proper size; skins thus cared for are said to be "properly
handled," and as a rule bring the highest prices.

Trappers in sections along the Pacific Coast, and
somewhat farther east, conduct their campaigns in small
boats not wholly unlike Noah's ark, in which they visit
the best trapping grounds, and at the end of the season
transport their catch to the nearest satisfactory market.

Raw beaver skins weigh, when dry, from one to
two pounds, and are frequently sold by weight. The
early Dutch settlers, and the last, on the island of Man-
hattan bought beaver pelts by weight from the In-
dians, the skins being placed in one scale and the hand


of the Dutch trader, in lieu of weights, pressing down
the other; and, as related by Washington Irving, no
matter how large the pile of beaver skins might be it
was invariably balanced or weighed down by the Dutch-
man's hand.

For some years past beaver trapping has been re-
stricted, and in some states absolutely prohibited, by
wise laws; without this protection the beaver would
doubtless be extinct at this date.

The color of the fur, which is remarkably dense
and soft, varies from a beautiful golden brown to darker
chestnut hues ; some are reddish-brown, and others very
dark, or nearly black ; a pure white beaver is occasionally

The plucked fur of the beaver is bleached to a
delicate golden tint, and also dyed black or any shade of
brown darker than the natural tone, and is always ex-
tremely attractive and serviceable; the undyed skins,
whether in hair or plucked, are most durable, and with
reasonable care will wear well for many years. The fur,
whether natural, plucked or dyed in either state, is
specially suitable for coats, capes, collars, caps and
gloves for either men's or ladies' wear ; the plucked fur,
in any color, makes a handsome trimming or border
for garments.

The beaver formerly abounded in Europe, and the
fur was used to a limited extent as early as the fourth
century; but the animal gradually disappeared from
most European countries, or has continued to exist only
in small numbers in isolated places.

Some forty years ago efforts were made to re-
acclimatize the beaver in Russia, parts of Germany, and


the Isle of Bute; the experiment was successful on the
Elbe, Germany, and the animals increased so greatly
that they became a nuisance to farmers and gardeners
near the river, and since 1881 many have been killed
to keep the number within bounds.

The Marquis of Bute in 1874 introduced the beaver
in one of his parks on the Isle of Bute in the Frith of
Clyde, off Scotland. The Marquis, who owned the entire
island, some thirty-six square miles in area, began with
four beavers, obtaining one pair in America and the
others in France ; the animals at once selected a swampy
section of the park, where they dammed a small brook
and constructed a lodge ; two of the creatures lived only
a short time, but as the others thrived, more were pro-
cured and placed in the enclosure with gratifying suc-
cess, the number in a few years increasing from a few
lodges of three or four members each, to several popu-
lous colonies in different parts of the island.


Of the several fur-bearing animals indigenous to
the United States the skunk is the most widely dis-
tributed, being found in every nook and corner where it
can procure food suited to its needs ; and notwithstand-
ing that it is persistently hunted, trapped, and worried
by dogs, it continues to thrive and multiply most notice-
ably in proximity to the habitation of its human foe,
on account of the fact that food in greater quantity
and variety is more readily obtainable in cultivated sec-
tions of the country than in wild areas remote from
civilization; it is certain that poultry yards have attrac-
tions for the skunk that is ordinarily acute, that open
spaces beneath barns frequented by rats and mice are
preferred places of abode, and that cultivated fields and
gardens in which grubs, crickets, beetles and grasshop-
pers abound constitute exceptionally favorable feeding
grounds for the skunk.

A mature skunk measures about eighteen inches in
length from the tip of the nose to the root of the tail,
which bushy appendage is nearly as long as the body;
a few specimens procured in the northwest are some-
what larger, and others in parts of the west are smaller,
or less than eight inches in length.



The fur of the skunk is soft, and the long hairs are
abundant, silky and lustrous in the best black specimens ;
the fur is really beautiful, and exceptionally desirable
as a natural black pelage, but differences in quality are
as great as the variations in size, and consequently single
skins range in value from a few cents up to two and
even five dollars at times when the article is in very
strong demand, or speculation runs riot. Some of the
very small skins are nearly all white, larger pelts from
better sections are nearly one-half or one-quarter white,
others show only a very small stripe of white, some just
a few white hairs in the forehead, and a small propor-
tion of the annual catch are entirely black; if the white
portion is small it may be cut out without detriment to
the pelt as subsequently manipulated by a skillful fur-
rier ; skins of various sizes and grades, including those of
excellent quality in fur showing a large proportion of
white are dyed in part or entire. The animal has an
extremely offensive odor, carried in a small internal sac
near the root of the tail; this odorous liquid is freely
ejected in circumstances of extreme excitement or great
alarm, and in due course some of it attaches to the fur,
and when it comes to market you know it ; the fur, how-
ever, is perfectly deodorized in the process of dressing
— the name, on account of the lingering association of
ideas, has to be deodorized also, a result readily effected
by furriers in the "home land" who present the article
under pleasing titles, such as black marten, American
sable or French sable; the fur has always been sold at
Paris and in other foreign markets under its own name,
and during the last few years has enjoyed right here in


New York as great favor as in any previous period as
plain skunk.

The fine fur of the skunk is used in the production
of stoles, scarfs, capes, muffs and trimmings; it is very
effective as a broad border upon full or three-quarter
depth garments composed of other furs, or high class

The fur of the skunk taken at the proper season
of the year, when full prime, is one of the most beautiful,
glossy natural black furs in the entire list of peltries,
but for centuries it was totally neglected and rejected
because of prejudice and want of knowledge — ^there was
a strong prejudice against the fur because of the name,
and even when the article was finally made marketable
it was, until quite recently, sold under various names,
other than its own, to insure its popularity. The fur
in the natural state has an offensive odor, due to its
contamination by a pungent fluid with which nature
provides the animal, seemingly as a means of defense ;
furriers and fur dressers made many attempts to purify
the skins and "kill" the odor, but only at first with in-
different success; for some time the oil of bitter almonds
was used in small quantity in the sawdust employed in
the final "drumming," but its use proved to be in effect
the displacing of one odor with an other, and not a satis-
factory exchange; at the present time an acid dressing
is used, the supply of which, originating in Germany, is
obtainable in reduced quantity on account of the war.

In 1869 Adolph Bowsky, fur dresser of New York,
successfully deodorized skunk skins in the process of
dressing, and in 1 870-1 871 the fur came into favor
to some extent, and in the succeeding years became


fashionable at home, and increasingly popular abroad.

Public sales of skunk skins were first held in Lon-
don in 1858 — there was no consumption of the article
in the United States at that time; the offering in Lon-
don aggregated 8,741 skins; the prices realized on this
little collection ranged from fifty cents to two dollars,
only one small lot bringing the latter figure.

In 1859 there were 73,097 skins sold at public sale
in London, and prices remained low; buying was for
continental account.

In i860 offerings at London comprised 135,709
skins, which sold for from twenty-five cents to $2.50,
only one lot of 451 skins bringing the top price; a
majority of the skins sold under fifty cents each.

There was a reduced number of skins in 1861, the
total being 112,935, ^^^ prices ruled low; skunk skins
were used abroad, but only on account of the fact that
they were cheap.

In 1867 a prominent New York house, with export
trade, quoted raw prime black skunk ten to twelve cents,
long-striped skins three to five cents ; the low price being
due to a marked decline in local demand, owing to in-
ability to perfectly deodorize the fur.

From 1870 to 1879 there was a fairly steady in-
crease in the collection and the consumption in America ;
offerings in London for the above period averaged 245,-
221 skins per annum; the number offered in 1879 being


For the following ten years, 1880 to 1889, an annual
average of 486,524 skunk skins comprised the offering
in London, with 625,565 skins as the total offered in


Beginning with the twentieth century the annual
offering of skunk skins at the public sales in London
approximated a million skins per annum; in 1912, the
latest year for which reliable statistics may be given,
the London sales offerings comprised a total of 1,527,771
skins. Prices at London in 19 12 ranged from 18 to 37
cents for No. 3 long stripe and white, 77 to 81 cents for
good white, to $5.75 for prime black — another instance
in proof of the assertion that the decrees of fashion set
aside, in furs, the law of supply and demand.

The man who deodorized skunk ought to have a
monument erected to his memory; he surely converted
a waste product into an article of commerce worth
millions per annum in pure gold.


The raccoon abounds in nearly all the states, and
the annual collection of skins at times exceeds seven hun-
dred thousand. The animal frequents swamps, marshes,
watered low-lands and higher wooded sections where it


can readily procure its necessary food consisting of
frogs, insects, berries and small fruits.

The fur of the raccoon varies considerably in color
ranging through dingy grey in which black predom-
inates, sundry shades of brown and grey, a rich plum
hue, and to nearly black; the furry tail is marked by
alternate rings of black or dark brown, and light grey
or dull white.

In the winter the raccoon has a full, dense coat of
fur and top hair; this condition is noticeable on pelts
obtained in southern and central as well as northern
sections, and consequently size and color are the more
important factors considered in determining the value
of individual skins. Pelts approximating black rank
highest in beauty and worth, and when made up natural
as neck piece or muffs, are remarkably handsome, and
not readily surpassed in attractiveness by the more costly
furs — ^but raccoon fur is not always in fashion.

The article ranks high in point of durability, and
in the natural state, unless subjected to very careless
treatment, will outwear the usual term of fashion's
favor, and may then be dyed black with the certainty of
a life of service well worth the cost.

Rough skins, in any of the natural colors, are often
dyed a rich lustrous black as an imitation of higher
priced skunk, and in instances as a substitute for beaver ;
it is also occasionally plucked and dyed black to simulate
beaver to which it corresponds in appearance, but not
in durability.

For the manufacture of men's coats for wear in
the open country where a temperature of forty degrees
below zero is not uncommon, raccoon is a favorite fur,



its use, however, is restricted on account of the higher
cost as compared with various heavy skins similarly em-
ployed in recent years. It is a popular article with
wealthy automobilists, and travelers in the northwest,
whether their great coats of raccoon are made with the
fur as the outside material or the lining.




From the date of discovery, and how many
centuries earlier no man knoweth, the muskrat has
abounded in all parts of North America where natural
conditions have been favorable to its existence; there
are three essentials, land, water and food specially suited
to muskrat life ; and though all of these have been more
or less affected, circumscribed, or eliminated by advanc-
ing civilization, cultivation of the soil and drainage of
swamps, the muskrat still survives in vast numbers in
most sections of the United States and Canada, making


Online LibraryAlbert Lord BeldenThe fur trade of America and some of the men who made and maintain it, together with furs and fur bearers of other continents and countries and islands of the sea → online text (page 11 of 34)