A White Beaver Hat

A Beaver Hat perhaps similar to the one sent to Mary Rose, although apparently dating to about 1830. Source: http://extantgowns.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/beaver-hat.html

Rose Fuller left Jamaica in 1755, after two decades running the Fuller and Isted interests, in order to return to Sussex to manage the family estates he had inherited on the death of his older brother.

He left behind his housekeeper and long time companion Mary Rose who would now keep an eye on his properties in Spanish Town and at Grange Penn. It is clear from her letters that she missed him. Although we do not have his replies to her letters the fact that several of her letters to him are preserved among his papers at the East Sussex County Record Office suggests the affection was mutual.

One of those letters contained a shopping list which included a request for a white beaver hat. Beaver hats had been fashionable in Europe since the sixteenth century. The barbs on beaver fur make it particularly suitable for felting and the inner fur is very soft. Later on a new process for preparing the skins would be developed using mercury salts, which combined with the steam used in shaping the hats produced highly toxic fumes. Mercury poisoning can result in madness and this is thought to be the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’.

By the eighteenth century the European beaver was being hunted so extensively that numbers were dramatically reduced. However the development of the North American fur trade meant that the beaver hat still had a future. From the late seventeenth century the Hudsons Bay Company was sending back regular shipments of furs to Europe. One beaver pelt could be traded for an iron axe head and the pelt would in turn be worth a dozen such axes. The benefit was not all one way however, since the increased efficiency of an iron axe over a stone one and the time saved in making the stone axe head benefited the native Americans and Canadians who trapped the beaver.

As you would expect for a fashion that has lasted for over four hundred years, beaver hats came in all shapes and sizes, from the large, dashing Cavalier hats of the court of Charles I, to tricorns and military hats, stetsons, top hats and trapper style hats with ear flaps.

I have only come across a couple of historical references to white beaver hats – one in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and another a reference to one worn by American President John Adams. Clearly white beaver hats must have been much more expensive than black or brown, and much harder to keep clean. Whether there was a particular fashion for them in Jamaica in the mid-eighteenth century I do not know, but what is certain is that it would have been an expensive luxury item. I do hope Rose Fuller sent the hat and that Mary Rose enjoyed the wearing of it.

You can read more about the history of the beaver hat in a project by Kelly Feinstein-Johnson here.


One thought on “A White Beaver Hat”

  1. Paul Joseph Pluth

    There is a reference to a white beaver hat worn by Col. William W. Gift in Sacramento in the local newspaper of May 16, 1864.


    Col. Gift was an avid follower of horse racing, and at one time must have lived in the pre-war American South, where the sport was centered then. He was a tax collector for the state of California during his heyday after relocating there early in the Gold Rush era (if not beforehand).

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