A 19th-century style: beaver hats

Beaver hats, like many other items, were introduced to the indigenous peoples of Ottawa by French and English colonists in the 17th century. Since then, the beaver hat has become a stylish and indispensable element of the men’s wardrobe in present-day Ottawa. For more details, check out ottawanka.com.

Beaver hat fashion in Ottawa territories

A fashionable hat was made of beaver fur, less often of silk or wool. This kind of hat was highly in vogue in Europe, dating back to the 16th century. With the colonization of Canadian territories, European fashion reached the native peoples living in Ottawa as well. The beaver hat became a staple in the fashion closet of the status man between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Back in the 16th century, for Europeans trading in furs, beaver pelts were at the top of the list. They were valued much higher and more expensive than all other furs traded in Canada. The French and English colonizers became real competitors.

They fought over access to such an exquisite commodity as beaver fur in the Ottawa territories. In Europe, beaver pelts, which had a very soft undercoat, were highly prized. They chose it because the soft undercoat could be turned into a very flexible, pliable and waterproof felt. It was such a type of felt that perfectly fit gentlemen’s hats in the 17th through the 19th centuries.

The fur trade for hats in Ottawa

The French were the first to make contact with the indigenous peoples of Ottawa. They established relations with them for further trade in beaver pelts. Soon the British arrived in Ottawa, who also wanted the best beaver pelts. Thus they made contact with the native peoples living in Ottawa to trade in the furs as well. Subsequently, a fierce competition was born. However, this competition opened up new opportunities for the indigenous people of Ottawa. In particular, most of them became hunters, often catching beavers for the colonizers. Some of the indigenous peoples of Ottawa played the role of a trade intermediary.

How did they make fur for hats?

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, there were two types of beaver pelts in the territories of old Ottawa:

  • Castor gras. They were harvested by the indigenous peoples of Ottawa in their pristine condition and then made into a large rectangle. The Indians sewed together 5 to 8 of these beaver pelts and wore them around their bodies for a year. Doing so was necessary to weaken the guard hair and add a glossy shine.
  • Castor sec. The indigenous people of Ottawa just stretched and dried the beaver pelts and then sold them to the colonizers. These beaver pelts were much worse in quality than Castor gras, as they had guard hair and were too thin.

It was this fur that was prized by the French and the English. It was used in the production of the most fashionable beaver hats for men. The Europeans fought for the supply of furs from the indigenous peoples of Ottawa, as pre-wearing the beaver pelt gave it a higher quality that was highly valued in Europe.

Before making the felt for the hat, the beaver’s undercoat was completely shaved off. Afterward, the shaved undercoat was blended. Then the fabric was tangled and specially whipped and boiled. As a result, the felt became much thicker. Next, the fabricated felt was laid on a block shaped like a hat and pressed with steam. The finished beaver hat was brushed to shine.

In particular, various beaver hats were highly fashionable in the Ottawa territories throughout the 17th and 19th centuries. Each man chose his own beaver hat based on his status. They were called:

  • Wellington beaver hat, worn in the 1820s and 1840s.
  • Paris Beau beaver hat, which was very fashionable in 1815.
  • D’Orsay beaver hat, which was fashionable in 1820.
  • Regent beaver hat, which was in fashion in 1825.
  • Clerical beaver hat, which was worn throughout the 18th century.

Demand for beaver hats declined in the early 19th century. By the middle of the 19th century, beaver hats were replaced by a new fashion for silk hats.