This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Fur. Hair, wool, and fur are slender filaments or thread-like fibers issuing out of the pores of the skins of animals, and all partaking of the same general nature, such as flexibility, elasticity and tenacity. Fur, however, is distinguished from wool by its greater fineness and softness, and hair from wool by its straightness and stiffness. Certain animals have a covering of fur upon their skins underneath a longer covering called over hair. The term fur is not used indiscriminately for any kind of skin, but applies only to to the short fine hair next to the skin. The fur differs from the overhair in that it is soft, silky and downy; while the overhair is straight and comparatively rigid. In the raw state furs are called pelts. Few kinds of animals furnish a pelt of the correct weight and pliability without artificial assistance, and all of them differ widely in texture, shade and fineness; it being these differences which determine their value. Furs naturally formed the first clothing of man. They were known to the Romans two thousand years ago, and from that time to the present day have maintained a high commercial value, and have frequently been used to mark social distinctions. The taste for really beautiful furs is never likely to die out. Good fur is akin to fine gems, and will always command admiration, respect and a proper price, but like them, its use must always be restricted to the minority. Really good fur is but slightly higher now than it has ever been, and while fine fur can only be worn by persons who make pretensions to elegance, yet the ingenuity of manufacturers have triumphed over natural deficiencies to a certain extent, and skins that would not have been tolerated as trimmings formerly are now, owing to the improved processes to which they are subjected, transformed into very fair imitations of handsome furs. In some cases this is so cleverly managed that only adepts are able to discriminate between the real and the false when the goods are new; wear and tear, however, are infallible means of detection. To be sure there are those who inveigh against this "fraud," and talk with regret of the degeneracy of the times when rabbit-skin is made to assume in turn the tints of the sable, the otter, the fox and the seal, for the temptation of the unwary, but the general feeling is very different, and the enlightened public looks with favor and not disdain at the growing popularization of cheap fur. It cannot but be gratifying to see almost every decently-dressed woman with a bit of fur somewhere about her person, if it be only a band about her throat, or a tiny muff to comfort her chilly hands.
A brief account is given here of the most-used varieties of fur and skins, with some general remarks as to their average value and customary uses:
Badger. - Overhair coarse, three to four inches long, black with silver spots, fur wooly; used for robes and brushes. Value of prime $1 to $1.25.
Bears. - Black, $12 to $28; cubs and yearlings $5 to $12. Grizzly, $10 to $15. Brown, $10 to $14; used for robes.
Beavers. - Overhair three inches long, of grey color, with reddish-brown ends. Fur thick and fine, of a silvery-gray hue or delicate light-brown; used in every form and fashion. Best are from Labrador; value of beaver fur $4 to $8.25 per pound; castor beaver $4 to $6 per pound. There was a time in the early history of British America when beaver skins were bought from the natives by the Hudson's Bay Company, at the regular price of fourteen skins for a gun, seven for a pistol, two for a shirt or one pair of stockings, one for a comb or twelve needles, etc., less than a hundredth part of their real value; all other fur-bearing skins belonging to that country were rated by that of the beaver.
Chinchilla. - Overhair and fur of equal length, and like wool may be spun and woven; color gray and black mixed. Best are from Peru; used for muffs, boas and borders on garments, but never for overcoats; value from $1 to $3 per skin.
Ermine. - Fur soft and pure white with tip of tail jet black. Best are from Siberia; used for muffs, garments and linings; value variable, from fifteen cents to $1.50 per skin, Fisher. - Fur fine; color black or gray. Best are from British America, value from $3 to $8 per skin.
Catskin Fur. - The fur of the wild cat, especially that of Hungary, is quite valuable. It is of a brownish grey, mottled and spotted with black. Being soft and durable it is employed chiefly for cloak linings and robes for carriages. The domestic cat of Holland is bred for its fur, being fed on fish and carefully tended until the coat has arrived at its full perfection, when the fur is frequently dyed in imitation of sable. American catskin fur is not so valuable, the wild variety being valued at fifty cents to 81.00 per skin and the domestic or house cat at five to ten cents.
Fox, Silver. - Overhair thick and fine, three inches long, varying in color from a pale silver to a darker hue; fur fine and curly. Its beauty places it ahead of all fancy furs. The choicest are from Labrador; used for muffs, boas, trimmings, and for garments by the rich; value $50 to $150 per skin. The skins of red foxes are valued at $1.50 to $2 per skin; cross fox $4 to $8; gray fox 50 cents to $1.
Marten, American. - Overhair fine and flowing, one to two inches long; fur close and thick; color of the best is of a dark coffee brown, of the poorest a pale yellow. The best are from Labrador, always a choice and valued pelt, value from 80 cents to $2.50
Buffalo Skins. - In 1880 buffalo robes could be bought for $6 to $8, but they are becoming extinct, and now bring $30 to $40 each. This price makes them too expensive for the trade. They have been supplanted by wolf skins which are expensive, and various goat skin robes for the cheaper buyers. China goat, especially, is becoming a popular skin for the manufacture of medium grades of carriage robes. Near Garden City, Kansas, there is a large ranch devoted solely to the propagation of the buffalo. These animals, however, are not raised for their skins, but merely for menageries and museums.
Lynx. - Fur fine; color gray or hoary, with clouded spottings; value of prime $3 to $3.50. Best are from British America.
Mink, American. - This valuable fur vies with the marten in elegance of luster. The choicest are of a blue-black shade that is always admired in furs. The best are from Maine and Labrador. It is most abundant in the Middle and Northwestern states. Value of latter 75 cents to $2.00; of former from $2.50 to $3.50.
Muskrat. - Overhair coarse and light brown; fur fine, thick and silky. A well known fur in the United States. Available for a great variety of purposes, notably in the manufacture of men's fur caps, and as a hatter's fur. The fur from the belly of the muskrat used for making men's fur hats, sells for $2 per pound. The price of the raw skins, however, fluctuates greatly; the annual catch varying from three to five millions. The usual price of prime varies from 15 to 50 cents. A variety of black musk-rats from Delaware and Maryland fetches double these prices, ,
Musquash. - Same as muskrat.
Nutria. - Overhair coarse and rigid; fur short and fine. From South America, in size and value between the beaver and the muskrat. The pelts are too often unsound, and hence the value of the fur is chiefly for hats; value of prime fur $3 per pound.
Opossom. - Overhair coarse; fur short and medium fine; value 5 cents to 25 cents.
Otter. - Color brown; found in all northern countries; best comes from Labrador. Value of prime $5 to $10.
Otter, Sea. - Overhair exceedingly fine, extending but little beyond the fur, which is close, thick and silky. The general color is a deep liver brown, everywhere silvered or frosted with the hoary tips of the longer stiff hairs; these, however, are removed when the skin is dressed for commercial purposes. Found only in the Aleutian islands and Alaska, where five thousand half-civilized natives depend upon sea-otter catching for obtaining a living. The choicest skins are almost exclusively used by the nobilily of Russia; value of prime $100 to $500.
Rabbit, Hare, and Coney. - Used, for an infinite variety of purposes, and especially in the manufacture of felt hats and fur caps. In trade technically termed " Coney."
Sable, Russian. - A European variety of the marten, both of which belong to the weasel family. The skin is held in high estimation by the upper tendom of Russia; in color a rich bluish-black shade. The caprices of fashion have at times set wholly fictitious values upon the desirable shades of this fur, values not recognized by professional furriers. Best and darkest colored come from Siberia and Northern Russia, valued sometimes as high as $150 per skin.
Sealskin. - See Sealskin.
Skunk.—Overhair fine, three inches long; in color dark-brown, black and white; fur thick, glossy and flowing. Many have two white stripes more or less broad, extending from the head to the tail. It is now easy to deodorize the skin, and the fur has become a popular one in all countries. The best are from New York and Ohio, value from $1 to $1.50; poor grades twenty-five to fifty cents.
Wolf. - The largest are from British America, and northern portions of the United States, chiefly grey-brown in color, with long, coarse, flowing overhair; mainly used in making robes and rugs. Northwestern wolf skins are valued at $3 to $5; southwestern seventy-five cents to $2.50; prairie, seventy-five cents to $1.50.
Wolverene.—Overhair long and shaggy, similar to the coat of a bear, fur short and wooly; color blackish brown. It is the largest variety of the weasel family, being from two to three feet in length. When several skins are sown together the fur forms elegant hearth and carriage rugs, value $3 to $4.
Furs are dyed in a variety of ways to make them uniform in color, and adapt them to the fashion and taste of the time. Ordinarily this is a cheap and easy process, only becoming an art when employed upon fine skins, from which the overhair has been first removed by "plucking," leaving the fur alone on the skin to receive the dyestuff. Among these are the skins of the muskrat, beaver, otter, and especially the seal; the last having received careful attention and study by dyers, as its entire value depends upon the success of the dyeing process. Great care is necessary to prepare the dye of suitable strength, and to infuse the coloring matter into the fur without allowing too much of it to reach the skin, whereby its wearing qualities might be ruined. There are fur manufactories in all the large cities of the United States, turning out vast quantities annually. St. Paul has for fifty years been an important fur market, and at present manufactures fur of all kinds, from a child's muff to the costliest seal garment. To this is added the making of mittens, gloves and articles of a similar kind. Another branch of the manufacture carried on at St. Paul is that of making fur overcoats. In 1891 the business of three factories at this point amounted to $1,200,000. In making garments fur is never cut with scissors. The marks of the pattern are made with chalk upon the skin-side, and then cut with a sharp knife, not letting it cut quite through at first, and then pulling the piece apart, thus finishing the cut very delicately so as not to spoil the fur. The use of scissors would cut the fur on the outside in spite of the utmost precaution. When it is all cut the edges to be sewed are brought together and moistened, and sewed overhand with a waxed cotton thread. Silk cuts the skin. All kinds of fur are cut and sewed in the same way. [See Sealskin, Hats]