Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The beaver felt hat was one of the main reasons for the success of the fur trade in northern states, such as Wisconsin, and Canada. But why was this hat more popular than others? Clothing allows for people to choose their own style while still holding the everyday role of providing covering. The pieces you choose to wear can be a public display of your social status. What is social status? It is your position within a community or society and can be based on different factors: age, education, wealth, job, where you live, etc. For Europeans in the 16th century, a broad-brimmed felted beaver hat was considered the latest ‘fad’ or fashion trend and was a “social necessity”. These hats were not only waterproof but also lasted a long time. Beaver hats held both their shape and color longer than objects that were made from another animals’ fur or simply cloth. Is there something in your life that you would call a social necessity?

In order to make one of these hats, the hat maker needed beaver furs or pelts. Because of the high demand in hats, by the late 1500’s, the beaver was extinct in western Europe and was close to extinction in Scandinavia and Russia. But because of European expansion into the Americas, a new source of beaver pelts was found. This sparked what is known as the Fur Trade. Beaver was not only plentiful, but the animals in what is now considered the northern states and into Canada had a denser, richer coat because of the colder climate. Do you choose clothing because of how they feel or by color?

The Europeans who worked for the trading companies had help from the native peoples, who knew the landscape better and could provide tips on how to hunt beaver. Native Americans took their furs to trading posts or buildings that supplied things to trade. This means that people would offer objects, such as beaver furs, in exchange for another item, such as wool, axes, beads, and silk. These buildings provided the native people with items that were unavailable to them before. There were European goods and objects that the Native Americans did not have the technology to create on their own. Today, most items are stamped with the country that made them. Even our clothing has a “made in” label.

By the 1820’s, the beaver population in North America was so low that the Hudson’s Bay Company introduced some of the first conservation measures to help increase the population. But what really saved the animal was a change in European fashion. The silk top hat became popular at the end of the 1830’s. Silk became more fashionable and people no longer wanted beaver hats. Material objects go in and out of fashion over time and these trends can have a greater impact. Is there an item that you used to wear all the time but has been replaced by something new?

This story is part of the Wisconsin Historical Museum Mini Tour

Written by Nick Ostrem, April 2020.


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