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Fur Caps

Fur caps are an interesting subject that I have wondered about a long time. When I first got serious about reenacting, I saw that most people really regarded fur caps as incorrect and bad history. I always found this odd as fur caps can be so warm and useful, especially in the northern winters. As I have researched, I have found that fur caps were around although not always like the ones we see at “historic” rendezvous. In this blog, I hope to briefly touch on this subject with some of my findings. This is only touching on the subject and I will focus on the Northern fur trade mostly. There are plenty of fur caps seen elsewhere too, including the dreaded coonskin cap!

Looking at images, there is a plethora of pictures of folks wearing fur hats in Canada and the Great Lakes in the 19th century. Unfortunately, there are far fewer images in the 18th century. I think this is more due to a lack of images of fur trade folks from this period rather than them not being worn. There are some written mentions of fur caps in the 18th century but they are about as numerous as mentions in the 19th century when we see so many more images of them being worn. It is for this reason, that I really believe many of these styles were also worn earlier. In the Great Lakes, the knit tuque still reigned supreme for the common cap, but fur caps also existed and were/are a very warm option.
For styles of caps, we see a variety. I am not yet ready to quantify the different caps into most to least common or where, geographically, they are more or less common, but I will list the different main variations that I see.
The first style is a fur trimmed cap. This is mainly seen in the form of the classic “Canadian Cap.” This is a wool cap with a fur band as trim. A similar style is seen in Europe in earlier periods and in Nouvelle France in the 17th and 18th century. This style however, had a longer, baggier crown. In his Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly article on the “Dress of the First Voyageurs,” Francis Back mentions a number of these caps. He lists common fur trim as wolf, beaver, bear, wildcat, and marten. Interestingly, this type of cap also shows up in some of Cornelius Kreighoff’s paintings in the mid 19th century. Fur trim is also found as a decorative (and perhaps warming) feature on a number of other caps, but I will exclude them as the fur appears more ornamental than utilitarian.
Another simple and common style of cap is the simple Indian fashioned turban. This is simply a tube or strip of fur connected at the ends to be worn as a band around the head. Turbans of otter and other furs are commonly worn by various Indian Nations in the Great Lakes and the North but were easily constructed caps for Euro-descent people as well.
A possibly more European version of the native turban was one with a fur top as well. These “pill-box” caps of fur are commonly seen in images. Some images are hard to tell whether there is a top or if it is a turban, but this style is seen a lot in 19th century images throughout much of North America.
A final variation is that of a cap with ear flaps. These are commonly mentioned in the North. Francis Back, in his Museum of the Fur Trade article on “Winter Traders’ Dress in Eighteenth-Century Hudson’s Bay,” cites many sources (many quoted later in this blog) explaining these caps. Some of these were with fur crowns, others with wool crowns and fur flaps.
Having some scraps of beaver fur from making my beaver robe, I have really wanted to create a historic hat that I could wear on a COLD winter day. Ultimately, I looked at the following quotes:
“the crown of which is cloth, the flaps of which reach down on the shoulders, and button close under the chin, are of beaver skin; and those who do not use caps, have martin or cat-skin wigs.” Voyages to Hudson’s Bay in Search of a Northwest Passage, 1741-1747, The Voyage of William Moor and Francis Smith (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1995), Vol.2., p. 153.
“a large beaver cap, double, to come over the face and shoulders…” Middleton, Christopher, A Vindication of the Conduct of Captain Christopher Middleton (London: The author, 1743), p.196.
“In mild weather, a otter skin wig or cap is worn, having a broad piece of the above skin ‘round it,’ the crown of cloth lined with linnen; but when the cold is great or snow drifting much, another kind of cap is used, the crown also of cloth but lined with flannel; and has a large flap or cape which comes down over the shoulders and ties under the chin.” Graham, Andrew, Observations on Hudson Bay (Written 1767-1791), HBCA, E 2/4-13. f. 435-6.

6 Responses to “Fur Caps”

  1. brice nagelmaker says:

    I’ve seen early personal property lists from Kaskaskia that have hats called half beaver. Often wondered what they were. Thanks for a great site.

    • Isaac says:

      Hello, Brice. Those “demi-castor” of half beaver hats would actually have been the common felt hat of the day, often worn “cocked” or as we call today, a tricorn. The felt in these hats could be anything from the less expensive wool felt to nicer fur felt with beaver (castor) being the highest quality. Half beaver or “demi-castor” would be a fur felt cap of only part beaver.

  2. DUSTAN says:

    lookin to buy one of these caps whats th price an can i have your number so we can talk thanks

  3. chris says:

    The first hat that you described, does it have the ear flaps as well or was it the latter two that only did. I’m sure you explained it, but I’m just not catching it at the moment.

    • Isaac says:

      In the article, the Canadian cap, pill box cap, and turban do not have ear flaps. The final category I “created” was a generic “with flaps.”

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