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.
Sealskin. For the supply of sealskin fur the markets of the United States and Europe are at the present day nearly entirely dependent upon the Behring Sea fisheries. The vast rookeries which at one time existed in the Southern hemisphere - in Patagonia, in the Faulkland islands, in Ker-guelen Land, and in numbers of islands in various parts of the Antarctic seas - nave been hunted almost out of existence. Seals are practically unknown where three-quarters of a century ago they were to be counted by millions. Indeed, although that side of the globe is rich in breeding grounds of the finest description, with cool water, misty atmosphere, and good landings, there are now but few of these where the seal is found at all. The animal has disappeared before the ruthless energy and unrestrained greed of fishers of all nationalities, who for more than half a century traversed the waters bordering on the Antartic and slaughtered it -careless whether the prized fur which had attracted them thither should be known to the markets of the future, so long as they succeeded in securing from it in their own markets the greatest advantage with the least trouble and expense to themselves. This state of affairs was rapidly being approached in the Behring Sea, when the United States and Canadian governments entered into agreement to restrict the wholesale slaughter of the seals, which has been carried on to such an extent the past few years that there was every prospect of the animals being killed off during the next 20 years. With the result of promiscuous fishing in the Antartic regions to guide them these governments have decreed that but 50,000 seals shall be taken from the Behring Sea annually. Even under this restriction there is an immense waste connected with every skin obtained, on account of the seals being killed in open sea. It is estimated that for every animal recovered six are lost, for they invariably sink to the bottom on being shot. By far the greater proportion of sealskins that are captured are used in the United States, though France, Russia and Germany use a good many. The demand in this country averages from 60,000 to 65,000 per annum. All the skins captured are sent to London, where they are auctioned off in the month of October of every year. The best skins are dyed in London, where the process is a secret. Attempts have been made time and again in this country to discover their process, but have always resulted in failure. In London, or for that matter in the whole world, there are but two firms who can do the work. The making of the fine seal brown shade is known to the trade as the "old apple dye." Its history is said to be as follows: "About 1834 a man named Apple worked in a London refinery as a sugar baker. One day two fellow-workmen - an Austrian named Philip Dano-witz, the other a Frenchman - came to him with a secret. At home Dano-witz had been a dyer, while the Frenchman had been a weaver. Together they had made some experiments with dyes, and had by accident stum-bled upon a beautiful shade of brown. Neither, however, had any money to continue investigations. Apple had saved a few pounds, and with this he bought off the Frenchman, and together with Danowitz set about trying experiments with a few sealskins. They were eminently successful. The furriers were quick to see the commercial value of the new dye, and soon arrangements were made whereby a factory was erected and business begun in earnest. Apple was shrewd and secured an interest in the business. Danowitz was made foreman. He gave the secret to a fellow workman named Hayes. By him it was imparted to one George Simmons, who revealed it to a man named Winchelow. With Winchelow its spread ceased, and the closest of corporations was formed." Few skins are less attractive than seals' when taken off the animal. The fur is completely covered and hidden by a dirty grey-brown and grizzled over-hair. This over-hair has to be removed; and is an operation requiring a very great amount of patience and skill, with a consequent increase in price. The expelling of the long, coarse over-hairs is effected by warmth and moisture, which softens the roots and enables them to be pulled out, or by shaving the inner skin very thin, which operation cuts off the roots of the hair which penetrate deeply, and leaves untouched those of the fur, which are very superficial. Whichever method is employed, the hair must be taken off uniformly or the fur will never lie smoothly, but will always have a rumpled look, which can not be corrected by any subsequent treatment. This will explain to some extent the cause of the high price of sealskin goods, and also the different prices one hears of, as a good many skins are more or less spoiled in dressing. Another cause, too, is on account of the monopoly of coloring the skins which the two dye houses hold. Formerly the pelt was dipped into a vat, but as the dye quickly rotted the skin, other means had to be resorted to. At present the dye is applied with a stiff brush, which goes to the root of the hair, but not further; the skin is then rolled up, fur inside, and after a little time, hung up and dried. The dry dye is then removed, and a further coat applied, dried, removed, and so on, till the requisite shade is obtained. From 8 to 12 coats are needed to produce a good color.