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Encyclopedia of furs

 

FUR, hairy covering of an animal, especially the skins of animals that have thick, soft, close-growing hair next to the skin itself and coarser protective hair above it. The under hair is frequently called the under-fur or fur proper; the outer hairs are the guard hairs; the whole, when dried, is the pelt. The term fur is extended to dressed sheep and lamb skins when they are prepared for wearing with the hair retained, and usually to curled pelts such as Persian lamb, karakul, astrakhan, and mouton.

Since prehistoric times humans have used furs for clothing. Traditionally, the prized furs have been sable, marten, and fisher (all of the genus Martes), the related mink and ermine (of the genus Mustela), and the chinchilla, from South America. The coats of the ocelot, the wildcat, the common house cat, the marmot, the nutria, the raccoon, the hare, and the rabbit are less expensive because the animals are numerous and easy to trap. Beaver and seal are prized for their durability, but such furs as squirrel and skunk are valued for their delicacy of texture. Fox furs have also been much esteemed, and the rare wild silver fox and Pribilof blue fox are sought after, although silver fox is now bred on fur farms.

The Fur Trade

The hunting of wild furs is still an important occupation in wilderness areas, notably in North Canada, Alaska, Mongolia, and Siberia. The finer wild furs come from northerly regions, where because of the climate the animals produce sleeker and better pelts. In the more populated and temperate regions of the world, however, only small pockets of territory retain enough wild animal life to be good for fur hunting. Because of this condition furs have always been luxury goods and were associated early with royalty and nobility (e.g., sable and ermine).

The fur trade has gone on since antiquity, but it reached its apogee in the organized exploitation of the wilderness of North America and Asia from the 17th to the early 19th cent. The staple fur of the great fur-trading days in North America was the beaver, though the fur seal was and is the object of highly lucrative fur hunts.

Many furs are also now grown extensively by fur farming, which has developed into a major industry in the United States and Canada in the 20th cent. The preparation and sale of fur remains a very considerable business. The dressing and dyeing and the matching and cutting of furs to make fine coats and other garments occupy the labors of a great many people concentrated in the few great fur markets of the world.

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