The Beaver Hat, Then & Now.

For half a millennium, beaver felt was the most prized fur when it came to hatmaking. Most beaver hats were made popular in Europe during the mid-1500s to the late 1800s. Beavers came to Europe as a result of explorations of the new world. In North America they were trapped by Native Americans and afterwards, skinned. The skins were then stretched and dried before the Native Americans took them to trading posts where they exchanged the pelts (that shipped off to hatters) for guns and knives.

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The reason why the beaver hat was “prized” above all other furs was that it felted readily into a dense, durable, and waterproof felt that had a silky sheen. The best beaver hats were made from beaver coats – these coats were made of beaver pelts worn by the Native Americans through the winters. The wear helped prepare the skins; the long guard hairs fell out from the pelt, separating and leaving only the soft under fur pelts. The soft under fur pelts were then used to make beaver felt hats.

It takes around four pounds of beaver pelts to get just enough fur for one felt hat. The supply and demand of beaver pelts was constantly changing its value. During the late 1700s and 1800s, beaver fur was in its greatest supply – beaver hats were readily available to most members of society. However, by the mid-1800s, the heavy demand for beaver pelts in Europe drove the beaver population to near-extinction – making beaver hats increasingly expensive.

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As the demand for beaver hats increased, hatters made them with less and less beaver fur. Often the beaver fur was mixed with all types of other furs, such as rabbit, mole, wool, muskrat, etc. These mixed fur hats were called “stuff hats”. But when the demand for inexpensive beaver hats became even greater, the silk hat was created. The beaver hat’s popularity declined during the early/mid-1800s as silk hats began to rise. By the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, beaver hats were largely replaced by silk hats.

Back then, hats symbolized a person’s authority, status, and social standing – without a hat, a person had no position and no status. The more elaborate the hat, the higher the status and position of the wearer. As the hat plates indicate, there were many styles of beaver hats, from those denoting military status such as the “Continental” Cocked Hat (1776), the “Navy” Cocked Hat (1800), The Army (1837); to those indicating on civil status like the Clerical (18th century), the Wellington (1812), the Paris Beau (1815), the D’orsay (1820), and the Regent (1825).

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Beaver felts reigned for decades and beaver hat is still considered the most prized felt of all for hats, softer, silkier, and more water-resistant than rabbit or sheep fur. Though nowadays, most felt hats are produced from other fur materials due to pricing concerns, you can still find 100% beaver hats at fine hat retailers, and within the O’Lover Hats collection. We have a selection of vintage beaver felts that were recovered from defunct hat manufacturers so as to not waste this incredibly precious material.

See more felt hats at O’Lover Hats

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5 Responses

  1. Great information!!! I’ll be checking for future posts!

  2. Excellent story about beaver fur. I also like your post about top hats; (it is hard to believe the first top hat caused such a ruckus). Aside from vintage pelts, where are beavers raised/caught now for their fur? One person told me they get their millinery beaver fur from Eastern Europe, if i recall correctly.

    • Thanks for reading Geoffrey. Beavers only live in North America, and they continue to be wild trapped. Some trappers work only in areas of over population, but I do not know about all of them. There are no longer processing plants for removing the fur pelts in N America, so the animals are shipped to Europe, often Spain. The material comes back to the U.S. to be made into felt for hat makers here. The Czech Republic makes wonderful rabbit and wool felts for hat makers. Some types of the rabbit felt is made into a long haired “beaver finish”, however this is not true beaver felt and lacks the superior qualities of beaver, hence why these are less expensive than actual beaver felt hats.

      • Wow, some really good information there. I appreciate your answer. I will watch out not to be confused by “beaver finish” of rabbit fur felt. Don’t be surprised if I reach out to you one day for more help on this topic, as you are so knowledgeable 🙂

      • Wow, some really good information there. I appreciate your answer. I will watch out not to be confused by “beaver finish” of rabbit fur felt. Don’t be surprised if I reach out to you one day for more help on this topic, as you are so knowledgeable 🙂

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