What they are - How to Preserve - How to Clean and Prepare.
The use of furs in England as an article of dress did not become general till the fourteenth century.
In 1670 - reign of Charles II. - the Hudson's Bay Company v incorporated by charter, and the entire trade in furs passed into its hands, and furs became cheaper and more abundant. In 1682 an opposition company started, but the two were amalgamated under the original name in 1821. The territory of the Hudson's Bay Company was of great extent: it reached from Canada to the Arctic Ocean, and from the coasts of Labrador to the Pacific. It has recently been transferred to the Government, and may therefore now be said to belong to the nation. London is the largest fur market in Europe, the Company having nearly 150 establishments in it.
Of all furs in the present day the sable is the most valuable, and will probably always continue the most expensive, as of all kinds of hunting, that of the sable is the most arduous and perilous; its proper name is Mustela Zibclline, or the Sable Marten. It belongs to a group of the Digitigrade Carnivora (i.e. from digitus the toe, gradion I walk, - walking on the ends of their toes). The Sable Marten is celebrated for the great beauty of its fur, but its winter coat is the one which is prized, and as it is found only in the northern parts of Europe and Asia, and is most abundant in the mountains of frozen regions, the chase for it is perilous, and the sufferings of its hunters terrible. The exiles of Siberia are employed in this winter sable hunting, and it is said that their sufferings from extreme cold, privations of all kinds, and the attacks of wolves, are beyond anything which we can imagine. A sad price is paid, indeed, for this luxury of the toilet !
The fur of the Hudson's Bay sable (Mustela Canadensis) is considered the next best to that of the Russian sable; the colour, however, is a light brown, not dark like the Russian, but it is frequently dyed, and is then quite as handsome in appearance. The Baum or Pine Marten's skin when dyed cannot be told by unexperienced eyes from the true sable.
The Stone Marten (Martela saxorum), found in high and stony districts, is the animal which supplies us with what is called French sable, because the French dye its skin so admirably. The natural fur is a bluish white underneath, with a top or surface of dark brown hair; the throat quite white. It is an excellent skin. The Fisher Martin is a larger animal; the hair of the fur is fuller and longer. Great numbers of these skins are brought to England from North America.
Beech or Stone Marten (Maries fagorum, Ray).
The fur of the Minx resembles sable in colour, but the hair is much shorter and has a satiny gloss. It is a very durable fur, and is imported by the Hudson's Bay Company.
The Polecats (Mustela fintorius) are found both in the Old and New Worlds. Their fur is thick and soft, their tail long, and they have glands which secrete a horribly unpleasant fluid. The Polecat is very common in Britain and very mischievous. It hides by day in the thatch of barns and unfrequented places, and at night invades the poultry yards and dovecots, and commits sad havoc, biting off the heads of the sleeping birds and carrying them away. Its fur is known to us as Fitch, and is still used, though not much liked, in England. The top hair is black, the ground fur a deep yellow. Fitch wears well, but has always an unpleasant smell about it.
Polecats (M. putornis, Linn).
The Ermine is another species of Polecat. Its body is about nine inches long and its tail about four. It has two coats - a white one in winter, with its tail tipped with black - this is the beautiful fur we call ermine. In the summer its coat changes to a beautiful brown above and yellowish beneath; it is then called Roselet. It is found in the northern parts of the New and Old continents. The best fur is taken from full-grown animals. They are taken generally in traps or snares, so that the skin may not be stained. The tails are laid on the pure white skin when the furs are prepared for use. Miniver, famous in Troubadour lay and story, is the ermine skin with the black tips of the tail spotted at intervals over the skin. Ermine was once exclusively worn by sovereigns and royal persons, and is still worn with state robes, The Kolinski (Mustela Sibirica) furnishes the Tartar Sable, as it is called; the skin is naturally of a bright yellow colour. It is, however, dyed into a good imitation of sable.
The tail of the Kolinski furnishes the "sable" pencils of artists.
Ermines (M. erminea, Linn).
The Beaver (Castor Fibor) is distinguished from all other Rodents, by its tail, which is horizontally flattened, of a nearly oval form, and covered with scales.
This animal was once, it is believed, a native of Britain. It is now an inhabitant of the most solitary parts of North America; it is also found in Siberia and Norway. It is a wonderfully ingenious animal, and builds for itself a hut (which it inhabits in winter) with marvellous skill. It is always found near the banks of rivers or lakes, and in company with others. Beavers aid each other to construct dams or dykes and huts for the winter. Each hut contains two or three families, and is of two stories. We have not space to give a full account of these wonderful dwellings or their inmates, but they are worth reading about. Formerly the skins of beavers were in great demand for hats, but happily for their existence the fashion has gone out, or they might have shared the threatened extinction of the black monkeys. The skin is still used for other purposes. When it is well prepared it nearly equals seal skin, and is lighter and more lasting. It is probably often worn as seal skin, if not sold for it.
Beaver and rabbit skins are manufactured into felt.
The seal (Phoca), the skin of which is now so much worn by English ladies, is an amphibious creature, found in the Arctic and South Seas.
Its natural history is as interesting as that of the beaver, but we have no space for it here. The coarse hair of the seal covers a fine silky fur.
The Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus).
The skin takes a great deal of preparation before it is fit for use, and is dyed dark brown or black. It is very beautiful and very expensive.
Of the fox - red, blue, black, and silver - and of the brown and grizzly bears, we need say nothing. The squirrel also furnishes us with a delicate fur, light, warm, and lasting, and imitation sable is made from it dyed.
The chinchilla is a little animal between a squirrel and a rabbit. Its fur is very soft and beautiful, but it is not durable, and soon loses its lovely bloom. Its fur is brought from Lima, Buenos Ayres, and Arica. The darkest and best comes from Arica. Those of Lima have short hair and are inferior to the others.
The Canada lynx (Fclis Canadensis) has soft long fur of a greyish colour. The Norway lynx is spotted with brown. It is generally dyed black and makes pretty muffs, but is not much worn at present.
The Astrakan, much used now for muffs, jackets, and trimmings, comes from Russia.
But perhaps the most beautiful of all muffs and trimmings are those made from the grebe, an aquatic bird, rarely seen on the land, as it has great difficulty in walking. It dives very swiftly, and is so beautiful that it is considered the standard of perfection among water birds. The extraordinary beauty of its plumage has caused the skin of this bird to be greatly used in ladies' dress. Seal skin and grebe are occasionally united with good effect in muffs, etc., etc.