Fur and Leather Garments
in 18th and 19th Century New England

by Marge Bruchac, December 2002

In 21st century America, the wearing of fur and leather runs the gamut from practical outerwear to extreme fashion statement. Depending on the style, a pair of high leather boots may be crafted to preserve one's feet from cold or proclaim one's wealth; a pair of trimmed leather gloves might be made from extremely fine leather and fur, or crafted of vinyl and fake fur to imitate the real thing.

During the late 18th and early 19th century, fur and leather garments in New England exemplified the intersection of Native American Indian and Euro-American material culture and fashion, in ways that crossed and blurred categories of class, wealth and ethnicity. In medieval Europe, fur garments and leather gloves had been the province of the nobility; in colonial America, they were available to anyone who traded with the Indians. In early 19th century markets, imported leather from Spain was an expensive luxury, but deerskins and buffalo robes were commonplace. Fur garments also went full circle ~ fashionable English top hats made from beaver fur found their way back to the heads of Indians who had taken to wearing European garments, albeit in Indian fashion. Following is a brief overview of fur and leather in New England, with a special focus on hand, head, and foot coverings.

The Antiquity of Fur and Leather Garments

Peoples of the northern hemisphere have worn garments of animal hide for millennia, pre-dating woven fiber and fabrics, and persisting after mass production of textiles. Some ancient examples have survived, among them the clothing of the Utzthaler "ice-man" found in the Alps in Bolzano, Italy. His sinew-sewn goat, deer and bear skin garb, carbon-dated to about 3,300 B.C., includes a smoke-tanned wrap coat, fitted leggings, loincloth, bearskin shoes and a "half-spherical skin cap... made of the pelt of a brown bear and, as opposed to the other pieces of clothing, even the outer fur has remained intact." (1) His close-fit skin leggings are remarkably similar in style to traditional North American Indian legwear, and his cap would be recognizable to a 21st century Canadian as a simple fur "toque." Although his handwear is missing, other early finds and archival records confirm the use of gloves and mittens by ancient peoples in cold seasons. The Greek general Xenophon, for example, "records that the Persians wore fur gloves having separate sheaths for the fingers." (2)

The hides of several hundred different species of creatures, including birds (ostrich), marine species (shark, whale), reptiles (snake, alligator), and even amphibians (frog) have all been processed into leather. Among indigenous peoples, wild animals like deer and buffalo provided the majority of hides. In medieval Europe, domesticated animals like horses, pigs, cattle, goats and sheep were most commonly used, with deer hunting restricted. Apart from clothing, leather has served as a covering for boats and homes, and has been used to craft armour, containers, drumheads, hinges, writing surfaces and bookbindings. By 1925, cattle, pig, and goat skins accounted for 95% of all worldwide leather production, and 80% of commercial leather was used exclusively to produce footwear. (3)

Various preservative techniques for processing animal hides with or without the fur have been employed across the centuries, including oil soaking (chamoising), mineral process (tawing), vegetable process (tanning), brain-tanning and smoking. The Sumerians used beer, wine, and oak galls to preserve ox hides in 800 B.C.; by 700 A.D. the Moors in southern Spain had perfected a process that resulted in the thin, smooth, bright red leather still known today as "Cordoba;" other advances in the industry included Russian birch-bark tanning (1200s), Moroccan sumach immersion (1750s), Dublin's sulfuric-acid bleaching process (1778) and American Indian brain-tanning combined with hemlock bark (1780s). (4)

Fur and Leather as Indicators of Status

The wearing of animal skins in ancient times was a practical matter, but as woven fabrics became increasingly commonplace, and European societies became increasingly stratified, leather and fur acquired the trappings of status due to their association with royalty. Distinctive decorative furs, like ermine, were incorporated into heraldic crests and coats of arms. (5) In medieval Europe, laborers and peasants routinely wore leather coats, gloves, shoes, caps and aprons, and the occasional fur hat, but the wearing of exotic or extravagant amounts of fur "was restricted to the upper classes as an obvious indication of dignity." (6)

In northern Europe, leatherworkers developed exclusive guilds - between 1272 and 1327, the Cordwainers, Saddlers, Curriers and Skinners of London, England all received Charters, and the Skinners, in particular, grew wealthy by marketing furs. The Glovers of Perth, Scotland, seem to have been the first tradesmen to have received a charter as merchant burgesses, in 1165. They took St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, as their patron saint, and jealously guarded against shoddy merchandise and foreign trade. (7) The leather trades flourished in English towns wherever ready supplies of raw materials and skilled workers were at hand. John Shakespeare, the father of William Shakespeare, "was a 'whittaner' ~ a worker of kid, dog and deerskin" gloves at the family home near Woodstock, one of the centers of England's glove industry. (8)

By the 1500s, "gloves were now common to all classes of men." Deerskin (also called "buckskin") gloves, as a finer, more flexible material than cowhide, were popular among the royalty. Gloves were often decorated, fringed, and trimmed, and were given away as tokens, pledges, or gifts - one entry in a roll of purchases for a Tournament at Windsor Park includes "six pair of buckskin gloves for the King" at 60 shillings. The Wardrobe Accounts of Prince Henry, son of James I, for 1607, include 31 pair of gloves, ranging from "staggs leather gloves, perfumed and fringed wth gold," to "white silk and silver." A pair of of King Henry VI's everyday gloves, by comparison, are described as homely, "made of tann'd leather, lined with deerskin, with the hair on the outside." (9)

The English association of fur garments with wealth and status persisted into the 17th century with the development of a fashionable article that became the centerpiece of the American fur trade ~ the beaver top hat. In the American colonies, Europeans discovered what seemed like an endless supply of fur-bearing mammals. Beaver furs, in particular, were well known to New Englanders, through their use in producing the fashionable hat that was commonly called a "beaver" in the early 19th century. (10) Beaver fur was processed by removing the long, coarse guard hairs, shaving off the downy underfur or "wool," and felting and molding the wool into shape, while discarding the thin skin. One of ironies of the fur trade is that cast-off Native garments were preferred over fresh skins, to save effort in processing. As English merchant Francis Kirby wrote to John Winthrop, Jr. in 1633: "Also note that the old [Indian] coats are better by a third than new coats, partly for that they generally dress the best skins for that purpose, partly that the leather is thinner and so consequently lighter by dressing, and partly for that the coarse hair is worn off." (11) In a 1650 list of fur values, "Old Bever skins in mantles, gloves or caps, the more worne the better, so they be full of fur" was purchased from the Indians at 6 shillings a pound, three times the price paid for a fresh skin. (12)

In Native communities, before the advent of the fur trade, the wearing of fur and leather had little or no association with status. Rank might be denoted by particular markings, feathers, or decorated garments, but fur and leather were worn by all. Clothing was frequently given away, traded, gambled, or even sacrificed. Animals, fish, birds, and trees, along with edible and medicinal plants, were regarded, not as property, but as generous neighbors who, once proper respect was paid to them, would offer the necessary sustenance and materials for survival. Status and social relations might be exhibited through highly decorated clothing, but they were, more importantly, demonstrated through sharing resources, honoring kinship relations, and generously distributing gifts. Some hunting clothing was decorated with markings designed to literally "please" the animals being hunted, and these clothes were often given away or sold after one season of use, with the understanding that the charm had worn off. (13) In Algonkian Indian languages, many items of clothing are considered animate, indicating their importance and potential power. For example, the words for fur and leather are inanimate nouns, but they can be crafted into items of clothing, like mittens (môldjesak in Penobscot), or a shirt (môbaks in Abenaki), that are considered animate. (14)

Fur was crucial for winter wear as well as everyday comfort. The dense soft fur from mammals such as beaver, muskrat, rabbit, fox, bear, otter, and seal, was used for sleeping robes, winter clothing, and trim on leather garments. The thick skin of hoofed mammals like deer, moose, and caribou, shaved of hair, brain-tanned, and then smoked into leather, was sewn into clothing, stitched together for lodge coverings, stretched across frames for boats, and crafted into various containers and instruments. Hair-on skins from the deer family, with their hollow, brittle hairs, were also tanned for robes, or, in arctic climes, sewn inside-out into clothing. The Algonkian peoples of New England "had mastered techniques which enabled them to manufacture the necessities of life from animal bone, ivory, teeth and claws, shells, quills, hair and feathers, fur and leather... Nothing was wasted... rawhide strips became woven snowshoe filling. Moose brains were used in tanning skins, antlers were worked into tools, dew-claws became rattles, the shin bone was carved into dice, the hair used in embroidery, and the tendons became sewing thread." (15) During cold weather, clothing consisted of thin leather garments worn next to the skin, topped by robes or covering of fur. In extreme weather, two layers of fur clothing was worn -"The first was turned hair side in to form pockets of air which provided both insulation and protection from dampness caused by perspiration. With the addition of a second layer of clothing fur side out, the Inuit winter dress was proof against the coldest weather." (16) Native traditions of crafting fur garments have persisted to the present, with many contemporary models still in use, based on ancient patterns. (17)

Yankees in Indian Garments

One of the earliest written records of a European wearing Indian-made fur mittens comes from the letters of the French Jesuit Paul LeJeune, who, in 1633, wrote that his Native companions "gave me their warm mittens and took my cold ones." LeJeune cautioned other would-be missionaries: "Il faut s'armer de bonnes mitaines, si on ne veut avoir les mains gelées." [translation: It is necessary to arm oneself with good mittens if one does not want frozen hands.] (18) Jesuit priests in France took vows of poverty, but in America, adopting warm garments was more a matter of survival than fashion.

In 1667, John Josselyn, while traveling in southern New England, observed that the clothing of the Native peoples "was the skin of wild Beasts with the hair on, Buskins of Deers-skin or Moose drest and drawn with lines into several works, the lines being colored with yellow, blew or red. Pumps [moccasins] too they have, made of tough skins with soles. In the winter when the snow will bear them, they fasten to their feet their snow shooes which are made like a large Racket we play at Tennis with, lacing them with Deers-guts and the like." Josselyn also saw coats woven with turkey feathers, but he particularly prized the local furs. "The skin of an Otter is worth Ten Shillings, and the gloves made thereof are the best fortification for the hands against wet weather that can be thought of." (19)

In the American colonies, the wearing of furs was associated more with practical dress than with imitating royalty. Euro-American settlers who worked or traveled outdoors adopted Native items like fur hats, leggings, mittens, and moccasins, for warmth and comfort. One New England minister who traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1783 "wore a long, heavy cloak over his regular attire, a heavy, lined hood and fur mittens." (20) During the American Revolution, some colonists took to wearing "buckskins" and "homespun" in lieu of purchasing expensive imports. During the late 18th century, fur hats were considered lower class compared to the wigs and beaver tricorns usually worn by gentlemen. When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on December 21, 1776, wearing a plain brown undecorated broadcloth suit and a marten-fur hat, his "fur hat enchanted the French man on the street ~ who thought it proved he was a simple American Quaker." (21)

Fur and leather garments also show up in reports of runaways, such "John Cannon," who left wearing "a new Fur Hat, Neats Leather Pumps, but it is supposed he has parted with the Hat" (1763). An "Indian Man, named Daniel Thomas," escaped from Natick, Massachusetts, wearing "a Leather round Hat, brown Jacket, Woolen Shirt, Pair Deerskin Breeches" (1766). A negro man named Harry left Oakham, with a "Claret coloured Waistcoat and moose skin Breeches" and a "fine castor [beaver] hat" (1777). Titus, a Mulattor servant, left Groton with "a Pair of new Cow-Hide Pumps and a Furr'd Hat with large Brims" in addition to "a Pair of white wash'd Leather Breeches" (1774) (22)

In colonial New England, Indian brain-tanned or oil-dressed deerskin or "buckskin" was often given the name "wash-leather" due to its softness and ease of cleaning. Deerskin, after brain-tanning, kept its natural color, a pleasing shade of ivory, and could be dyed into darker colors. Local deerskin was plentiful and reasonably priced ~ in Hadley, Massachusetts in 1770, for example, skins measuring 12 square feet sold for an average of 14 shillings each, at a time when imported cottons sold for 25 shillings a yard. Venison ~ deer meat ~ was only about 2 pence a pound. One deerskin would provide enough leather for half a pair of breeches, or four to five pair of gloves or mittens. Throughout the 18th century, in the Connecticut River valley, "Breeches were the most common garment made of deer's leather, jackets or waistcoats were numerous; there were leather doublets and coats, and some had a leather suit. A few had wash-leather stockings, and many had deer skin gloves. Moccasons were made of deer's leather and moose leather." (23)

For some colonial troops, like Rogers' Rangers, leather breeches and/or Indian-style leather leggings and mittens became standard military issue, including the trick of threading a cord through both sleeves to avoid losing them. Pierre Pouchot, in the 1750s, noted of northeastern Indians, "They make mittens of skins or flannel, hung to their neck by a string, which serves them better than gloves, because the separated fingers would be more likely to freeze." (24) The winter clothing styles that were well known in the northeast were also employed by New Englanders who went west - Nicolas de Finiels, an engineer in the Louisiana Territory between 1797 and 1803, noted that his expedition adopted Indian clothing, including: "fur hats that cover the neck and ears, and a pair of fur mittens attached by a long string." (25)

Not all fur for hat-making was shipped overseas ~ in the late 18th and early 19th century, hatters Deacon Ebenezer Hunt, of Northampton, and Oliver Warner of Hadley, MA, bought raccoon, mink, muskrat and deer from local hunters, and made regular trips to Albany and Boston to purchase beaver from Indian hunters or fur wholesalers. (26)

Although fur-bearing animals grew scarce in southern New England and coastal areas by the late 17th century, their populations were still abundant in thinly populated, thickly forested regions like the Berkshires, northern New England, the Adirondacks and Canada, and the western territories. White tail deer were especially plentiful, after the elimination of natural predators like mountain lions (also called cougars or panthers) and wolves; the mountains of the Adirondacks and northern Pennsylvania continue to support huge deer populations. Throughout the 19th century, both Native and non-Native hunters and trappers supplied traders and merchants in Montreal, Boston and Albany with furs, and local Indian served as guides and trappers for companies like Hudson's bay as the fur trade extended into the western territories. Indian families traveled across the northeast on foot for long distances, wrapped in English wool blankets and buffalo robes, and often wearing beaver top hats, while peddling Indian baskets, brooms, furs, leather goods, and other crafts. Sometime around 1800 an Abenaki hunter, John Watso, fell through the ice of Otter Creek in Vermont, and was rescued by a Scots-Irish settler, Donald McIntosh, who purchased the full pack of "gude beaver and otter fur," after nursing Watso back to health. Watso's son-in law, Israel Sadoques, continued the family tradition of supplying pelts for the Hudson Bay Company until 1879, when the family settled down to basketmaking in Keene, New Hampshire. (27)

Deerskin Gloves from Gloversville

Between 1760 and 1950, one small region in central New York state dominated the leather glove industry in America. As the 1836 "Gazetteer of the State of New York" notes, "The inhabitants are extensively engaged in the manufacture of dressed deer skin gloves and mittens, making a quantity said to be greater than is made in all other places of the U.S., exceeding, for many years past, in value, $130,000 annually." The names of the towns in the region reflect the trade, particularly Gloversville, Leather Town, and Perth. (28) American-made deerskin clothing became a major cottage industry after Sir William Johnson began encouraging tanners and tailors, and numerous Scottish families, to settle near Johnstown, NY in the 1760s. Native hunters and fur traders brought in raw deerskins from the Adirondacks, Canada, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio territories; local tanners used both Native brain-tanning and hemlock bark processing to produce especially soft and durable leather. Kingsborough settlers also marketed local tinware in exchange for Indian supplies ~ "A tin basin was legal tender for a deer skin. All pioneers learned the art of tanning deer skins from the Indians, using the deer's brains or hog's brains in the process instead of the soda ash "fat liquor" later in use. Deer skins were then used for all kinds of clothing, moccasins and mittens, and were especially prized for breeches on account of wearing qualities. These skins were plentiful, cheap and often a drag on the market." Glovers sewed custom garments and developed patterns, and local women and Indians were hired to do home stitching of pre-cut gloves, moccasins and mittens. From the late 18th right into the early 20th century, deerskin gloves in eastern New York and western New England were so plentiful that they were frequently given as gifts and traded to settle debts. (29)

Following William Shirley's instructions, Sir William Johnson, in his role as Superintendent of the British Indian Department in the American colonies, had arranged to supply his Iroquois allies and neighbors with "whatever Goods and commodities they shall want in Exchange for their Furrs and Pelletrie." (30) He cultivated a close association with leaders of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and moved into Johnson Hall with his Mohawk wife, Mary (also called Molly) Brant, a member of the women's council who functioned as a powerful leader in her own right. Johnson relied upon her friends and relatives to secure extended kin relations; his contributions to feasts and councils and distribution of gifts demonstrated his generosity as a provider. (31)

Johnson's accounts of expenses between 1758 and 1774 show his reliance on individual Native craftspeople for supplying skins and making goods, and on local white tradesmen for large-scale leather dressing and garment manufacture. In February and March of 1759, Johnson paid for the manufacture of numerous snow shoes and wampum belts as well as moccasins. A Cayuga woman was paid 1 pound, 4 shillings for "6 pr. Indn. Shoes for Warriors," 12 shillings for another "3 pr. Indn. Shoes" and 18 shillings for a "skin & 2 pr. Shoes." Two Onondaga women received 1 pound, 12 shillings for "8 Pr. Indn. Shoes," and one received an additional 8 shillings for "Smoakg dressing 8 skinns." A larger order came in April for "209 pr. Indn. Shoes For the Warriors." Other expenses paid to Indians in the same time period included clothing, provisions, guns, payments to widows, oxen for feasts, and hay for horses. (32)

The entwined gift-giving customs of British royalty and Native chiefs were also demonstrated at Johnson Hall by giving leather gloves to mourners at funerals. On April 28 of 1759, Johnson picked up "106 pair Mens Gloves," "36 ditto Womens" and "13 Pair White Mans Gloves" from supplier Daniel Campbell. On the following day, he paid the debts of his deceased Mohawk ally Peter, and billed his Indian expense account 30 pounds for the making of "600 pr. Of Indn. Stockings [leather leggings] wt. Ribbn. To them" so the mourners could be arrayed in their finest Mohawk dress. (33) Johnson's own will, written January 27, 1774, specified that "ye Sachims of both Mohawk Villages be invited to my Funeral, and thereat receive each a black stroud Blancket, Crape and Gloves which they are to wear, and follow as Mourners next & after my own family." (34)

Johnson was particularly concerned about the quality of the leather goods he sold or distributed. On October 25, 1769, Daniel Campbell wrote: "I have a parcel of Deer Skins Ready dressed but don't think them Strong Enough have put 10 Strong Skins into the hands of the leather Dressers ~ who promised me they do them as Soon as possible." (35) As the leather industry in the region grew, other leather workers eagerly offered their services. On March 25th, 1771, Walter Morris and William Bevan of New York, wrote: "We Are Both Lether Breeches Mackers Can Dress Lether Aney Manner that Sutes Mackes Gloves In the Bes manor," and asked for a grant of land. Johnson granted their request. (36) On June 11th of the same year, he sent another tailor to Campbell to pick up a parcel of deerskins, with a note in hand that read: "As the Bearer Richard Mandavil of this place, Breeches Maker, is in want of leather to follow his Business, If you let him have a Couple of Packs of Deer Skins fitt for his purpose, I will See you paid for the Same... P.S. as He is but a new beginner here, I doubt not but you will be as favourable to him as You can." (37)

After Johnson's death, glover James Burr dominated the glove industry, bringing English leather dressers Ezekiel Case and Tallmadge Edwards over in 1806 and 1807. They increased production of heavyweight mittens called "choppers" (for their popularity with woodcutters), selling them by the dozen. By 1825 glovers were regularly trucking loads of gloves and mittens to Boston. Cutting machines came into use around 1859, and sewing machines soon thereafter. (38) The deerskin clothing trade in Gloversville did not diminish until the late 20th century. (39) "For some 200 years, from the 1780s to the 1980s, a great deal of America's leather hand wear originated in a little town christened, appropriately enough, Gloversville." (40)

Defining Terms

The word "glove" in English technically refers to any style of hand covering; a "mitten" covers the hand and thumb but not the fingers; a "mitt" is a fingerless, and thumbless, glove. Both mitten and mitt derive from the French "mitaines," hand protection. Heavy arm-length mittens or gloves were also called "gauntlets" from the French "gant." (41)

Many terms used in the 18th and 19th century leather trade were derived from the names of regions that had developed particular tanning techniques, like "Cabretta" and "Morocco." Other names, like "chamois," described, not goatskin, but any leather that had been split to produce a double-sided, soft, absorbent suede. French glovers produced an exquisitely soft leather, called "kid," from young goats that had been kept in padded enclosures to prevent any damage to their skin. These imported leathers were more expensive than common deerskin. In America, the term "kid gloves," however, rarely meant what it implied. "In the case of kid glove leather, the public deceives itself, as the name clings to the product merely in popular use and is never used by manufacturers." In practice, kid could describe any soft leather - goat, sheep, calf, or even deerskin. (42)

The Oxford English Dictionary lists numerous 18th and 19th century references to fur trim and garments in America, including notations like: "A large Pair of Beaver Mittings... which reach up as high as our Elbows" (1742), "fur muffs and tippets" (1792), a "gallant old gentleman in his seal-skin cap" (1837), a "grey cloth spencer being drawn over his coat, fur-collared and cuffed" (1856), "long, straight, fur-trimmed coats" (1860), and a reference to Massachusetts "Farmers' wives in beaver bonnets and red cloaks" (1844). (43)

By the mid-19th century, beaver, seal, and bear were common descriptive terms as well as literal names. Buffalo hides were described by the curl of their hair; the most valuable was called a "'Beaver-robe,' a soft fur resembling the animal it was named for." "Mitten-beaver," from the French colloquial "mitaine," meaning "inferior beaver," indicated beaver pelts that were "cut out for that Purpose to make Mittains, to preserve them from the Cold" (1744). (44)

By 1860, "beaver" might also indicate a heavy felted wool, called "beaver-cloth," or a cheaper fur, like rabbit or muskrat, that had been finished and combed to look like beaver. English textile manufacturers also developed, in 1860, both "sealskins," and "silk sealskin," cloths made from blended mohair and/or Tussar silk. English furriers in the late 19th century also devised imitations like "musquash sealskin" ~ muskrat trimmed to look like seal, and "beaver lamb" ~ "lambskin cut and dyed to resemble beaver fur." (45) Beaver fur was also used in producing what were called "beaver gloves." In central New England, the term meant beaver fur spun into, or knitted together with, wool. In northern New England and Canada, the term also applied to felted or knitted gloves or mittens, with beaver fur pelt backings sewn on. Like "half-beaver" top hats made partly of wool or rabbit, and "beaverette" muffs made with rabbit or squirrel skin, these products reflected the desire to market a known fur ~"beaver"~ while combining it with cheaper fur, leather or wool to lower the cost. (46)

The "Boston Daily Advertiser" for December 12, 1831, among hundreds of other examples of leather goods for sale, lists both beaver and kid gloves in the inventories of Thomas Tarbell & Co. ~ "beaver and kid gloves, large sizes," and Henry Rice ~ "Men's Beaver Gloves." In the "Massachusetts Spy" for January 3, 1838, C. P. Whittemore advertised " Good Dark Kid Gloves" at only 17 cents per pair, cheaper by far than "Good Worsted Hose," selling for 25 cents. In the same paper, Nathaniel Tread advertised "5 Bales dark colors, extra selected Buffalo Robes," "10 Doz. Otter, Fur Seal, Nutra and Hair Seal Caps; Ladies Boas; Capes and Muffs," as well as "Men's and Boy's leather Mittens." (47)

Beaver fur could be high fashion or low fashion, depending on the degree of wear or style of garment ~ for example, in "La Belle Assemblee," there is an illustration of "Winter Walking Dress" for February 1812, showing beaver gloves as part of an ensemble that includes a "scarlet Merino cloth pelisse" [coat] trimmed with "broad fur in front, forming a tippet, pointed at the back," fur cuffs, and a fur-trimmed hat. (48) Charles Dickens, writing in the 1860s, describes a "particularly rusty" character, and emphasizes the cheapness of his fashion by listing: "a pair of old, worn, beaver gloves, a broad-brimmed hat, and a faded green umbrella, with plenty of whalebone sticking through the bottom." (49) By the late 19th century, many New England went about wearing "bearskins," meaning a cheap "shaggy woolen cloth used for overcoats." (50)

Winter Wear for Travelers

Heavy hair-on fur hats, gloves and mittens, and fur-lined boots or moccasins, were most in use in cold occupations, like fur hunting, woodcutting, freight hauling and coach driving, or when traveling in cold seasons or cold regions. A writer in 1857 noted: "Loggers are obliged to take good care of their feet; one of them often wears three or four pair of socks, with a pair of mocassins over them - the mocassins, because they give the feet more freedom and thus render them less liable to freeze, are generally preferred to coarse leather boots." (51) The forerunner of today's Sorel pac-boots were the high, laced, Indian moccasins called, in Inuit, "mukluks."

Buffalo robes, bearskins, and other thick furs were used by Indians and Euro-Americans alike as sleigh robes and bedding for winter warmth. Molly Brant's claim for losses, when her house at Johnson Hall was ransacked by American rebels in 1778, included "1 large Beaver Blanket." (52) A group of Abenaki Indians who traveled through western New England during the 1830s were described as being "comfortably well off for Indians, having several horses and wagons, and a goodly supply of blankets and buffalo robes." (53) During the early 19th century, New England newspapers began regularly advertising new shipments of buffalo robes in the winter months.

Because of the hard work of teaming horses, only a handful of what are generally called "driving gloves" ~ fur backs with leather palms ~ have survived in museum collections. I personally own four pair. One was purchased in Sturbridge, from an elderly resident who said they were used by a local stage coach driver in the 19th century. These gloves have furred bearskin backs, with leather palms, and corduroy and sheepskin lining, and are so worn as to show the shape of their wearer's hands. Pliny Freeman's son Silas drove the local stage in mid-century, but we have no record of what he wore on his hands. I also have an additional three pair, of unknown provenience, with beaver, bear, and sheepskin backs, and almost identical corduroy linings. Edward Maedor, the Historic Costume Curator at Historic Deerfield, has located, in their collections, another 19th century pair, made as mittens, with mottled brown and black fur (labeled as sealskin or muskrat, although it appears to be beaver), and leather palms, lined with sheepskin. (54)

Between 1841 and 1869, Cornelius Kreighoff painted numerous winter scenes of both Native and non-Native hunters, teamsters, farmers and other outdoor travelers, in northern New England and southern Canada, wearing Indian-style moccasins, mittens, and hats of both leather and fur, and using toboggans, sleighs, canoes, and snowshoes. (55) Between 1810 and 1900, Native gloves, mittens and moccasins became increasingly popular items in the tourist trade ~ these were often decorated with quillwork or, as small glass beads became available, beadwork. Leather and fur items were also decorated by Native people for personal use ~ the Canadian Museum of Civilization has some stunning example of floral beadwork on mittens and gloves collected in 1840. (56)

Use of fur robes for winter travel persisted into the early 20th century. One woman recalled her father's dress for postal delivery in 1904: "He wore a fur-lined coat with a high muskrat collar that rose to meet a warm cap with fur earflaps. Tucked around his legs were a woolen horse blanket and a buffalo robe, and other blankets were under him so that once settled it was very difficult for him to move. His hands were encased, first in home knit mittens and then in fur lined gauntlets. These were all right for driving, because his knowing little broncos - Ned and Nettie - could pretty well handle themselves." (57)

In sum, leather gloves and fur mittens, like toboggans and snowshoes, are just two of many examples of Euro-American incorporation of Algonkian Indian material culture for practical purposes. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, leather and fur garments, particularly breeches, gloves, hats and mittens, were in plentiful supply, and were by no means restricted to the wealthy or fashionable. The regional fur trade continued, in forested areas of western and northern New England, upstate New York, Canada, and Pennsylvania, and leather goods made their way to local merchants and craftspeople as well as overseas markets. Deerskin was a cheap local alternative to expensive imports like Spanish leather. By the 19th century, enterprising American merchants were already developing cheap local imitations of popular leathers like kid, or furs like beaver. Indian-style hats, moccasins, and gloves, made by both Native and non-Native manufacturers, offered a warm, comfortable, reasonably priced and practical choice for coping with New England winters.


(1) Angelika Fleckinger and Hubert Steiner, The Iceman, Museo Archeologico Dell'Alto Adige, South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Vienna: Folio Berlag Bolzano 1998, p. 26-33.

(2) Encyclopaedia Brittanica, New York: Encyclopaedia Brittanica Company 1910, p. 135. Cinderella's famous "glass" slipper, in the original story, was a "fur" slipper - the French word "vair" for fur, was changed by Charles Perrault to verre," meaning glass - both words in French sound the same. See Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1976, p. 251

(3) John R. Arnold, Hides and Skins, Chicago and New York: A. W. Shaw Company 1925, p. 5, 17.

(4) For a brief summary of highlights in the development of tanning processes, see Mike Redwood's "Leather Industry Companion: Timeline" at http://www.redwood.uk.com/history/homepage.html 2002

(5) In the symbolic language of heraldry, a tincture of fur represents "tufts upon a plain ground, or patches of different colors supposed to be sewn together. The eight principle furs are ermine, erminois, pean, vair, countervair, potent and counterpotent." See the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Second Edition 1989, Oxford University Press 2003 under entry for "fur."

(6) Leather Industry Companion: Timeline" 2002

(7) S. William Beck, Gloves, Their Annals and Associations: A Chapter of Trade and Social History, London: Hamilton, Adams & Co. 1883, p. 136-145.

(8) "Leather Industry Companion: Timeline" 2002

(9) Gloves, Their Annals and Associations, p. 119, p. 39-41.

(10) See the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Second Edition 1989, Oxford University Press 2003 under entry for "beaver."

(11) Winthrop Papers, III, p. 82. Also see The Pynchon Papers: Selections from the Account Books of John Pynchon 1651-1697, Boston, Colonial Society of Massachusetts 1985, p. 33.

(12) Fur prices paid in the Virginia Colony and Massachusetts Bay, quoted in Thomas Morton, New English Canaan, original 1637, edited by Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Boston: The Prince Society 1883, p. 205

(13) See Dorothy K. Burnham, To Please the Caribou: Painted Caribou-skin Coats Worn by the Naskapi, Montagnais, and Cree Hunters of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992. Between 1700 and 1930, Canadian Indian hunting coats were often cut on European patterns and decorated with traditional Native designs ~ because of their limited use, many have survived in museum collections.

(14) For references to furs and mittens in Algonkian languages, see Frank G. Speck, Penobscot Man, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 1940, and Gordon Day, Western Abenaki Dictionary, Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 128, Hull, Quebec.

(15) Ruth Holmes Whitehead, Elitekey: Micmac Material Culture from 1600 AD to the Present, Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nova Scotia Museum 1980, p. 9.

(16) Brenda Clarke, "Inuit in Labrador" The Newfoundland Museum Museum Notes, Winter 1981, online at http://www.delweb.com/nfmuseum/notes4.htm

(17) There are some surviving examples of fur mittens with fur in and out, short and long cuffs, plain and decorated, and strung with cords, in northeastern museums that include the McCord Museum in Montreal, Quebec, the Musée des Abènakis at Odanak/St. Francis, Quebec, and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, in Ledyard, CT. The collections of the Museum of Civilization at Hull, Quebec, are now viewable on-line at http://collections.civilization.ca/cgi-bin/emupublic Also see Michel Noel & Jean Chaumely, "Les Mitaines et les Gants," Arts Traditionnels des Amerindiens, Montreal, Quebec: Editions Hurtubise 2001, p. 78-81.

(18) Reuben Gold Thwaites, editor, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Vol. V: Québec 1632~1633, Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1898 p. 164.

(19) Paul J. Lindholdt, editor, John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New England, University Press of New England 1998, p. 67, 92, 93.

(20) Dr. William R. Byrd, "St. Matthew's United Church of Canada: Past, Present and Future," at http://www.stmatts.ns.ca/history.html, no date.

(21) Thomas Fleming, Liberty: The American Revolution, New York: Viking 1997, p. 230-231.

(22) Runaway ads from the following newspaper notices, in sequence: Pennsylvania Gazette, September 1, 1763, Boston Gazette, April 7, 1766, June 13, 1774, Massachusetts Spy, Worcester MA May 7, 1777

(23) Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, Massachusetts, Springfield, MA: H.R.Huntting and Company 1905, p. 350.

(24) Pierre Pouchot, Memoir Upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60, Roxbury, MA: W. Elliot Woodward 1866, Vol. II, p. 215.

(25) Carl J. Ekberg and William E. Foley, editors, Nicolas de Finiels, An Account of Upper Louisiana, Colombia: University of Missouri Press 1989, p. 112.

(26) History of Hadley, p. 348-349.

(27) Rowland Robinson, Out of Bondage and Other Stories, Rutland, VT: Chas. E. Tuttle, 1936, p.107-123. Although Rowland's writing is often assumed to be historical fiction, his Abenaki accounts correspond perfectly with family names and oral histories in Vermont. For an account of Israel Sadoques' hunting, see Mali Keating, "North American Passage: the 19th century odyssey of an Abenaki family," in Visitin', Middlebury VT: Vermont Folklife Center, Vol. 7, Nov. 2001, p. 24-31

(28) Thomas F. Gordon, Gazeteer of the State of New York, Philadelphia, PA: T.K. and P.G. Collins, 1836, p. 538-540.

(29) See "Gloversville," Encyclopedia Brittanica 1911 edition, and The Old Mohawk-Turnpike Book, Charles B. Knox Gelatin Company 1809. Professor Gerald Zahavi and doctoral student Susan McCormick, of the State University at Albany, are also constructing a new web site on the glove industry, titled: "The Glovers of Fulton County," on-line at http://www.albany.edu/history/glovers/. For women's work in the glove industry, see the section titled "Banning Homework: A Case Study of Class, Community and State in the Fulton County Glove Industry" at http://www.albany.edu/history/glovers/homework.htm.

(30) Letter from William Shirley to Major-General William Johnson, New York, January 13, 1756, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson, edited by James Sullivan, Albany, NY: University of the State of New York, Volume II, 1921, p. 411

(31) See Molly Brant: A Legacy of Her Own, by Lois M. Huey and Bonnie Pulis, Youngstown, NY: Old Fort Niagara Association, 1997.

(32) Johnson's Acount of Indian Expenses ~ Nov. 1758 to Dec. 1759, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson,, Volume III, 1921, p. 149-167.

(33) Johnson's Acount of Indian Expenses ~ Nov. 1758 to Dec. 1759, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson,, Volume III, 1921, p. 166.

(34) Will of Sir William Johnson, January 27, 1774, The Papers of Sir William Johnson,, edited by Albert B. Corey, Volume XII, 1957, p. 1064.

(35) Items from Daniel Campbell Accounts, Schenctady, April 30, 1756 ~ May 16, 1765, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson,, edited by Albert B. Corey, Volume XIII, 1962, p. 354.

(36) Letter from Walter Morris and William Bevan to William Johnson, New York March 25, 1771, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson,, edited by Alexander C. Flick, Volume VIII, 1933, p. 40-41.

(37) Order Concerning Deerskins from William Johnson to Daniel Campbell, June 11, 1771, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson,, edited by Alexander C. Flick, Volume VIII, 1933, p. 145.

(38) The Old Mohawk-Turnpike Book, 1809

(39) My great-grandparents and grandfather were mid-19th to early 20th century Abenaki hunters and basketmakers who frequented the Adirondacks and traded in Saratoga Springs and Johnstown; my father was a taxidermist and tanner who worked closely with the tanneries in Gloversville and Indians in the Adirondacks from 1938 until his death in 1986. The 1940 catalog for "Adirondack Taxidermy Studios offered "Indian Tanned Deerskin - Soft as Velvet, Smooth as Silk, Strong as Steel,Washable, Just like the Indians used to tan, but twice as good." Like Sir William Johnson, my father used deerskin gloves as legal tender and gifts, paying for favors and debts, and bartering with them.

(40) David H. Shayt, "Just the Right Touch," Smithsonian Magazine December 2002, on-line at http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues02/dec02/object.html

(41) Oxford American Dictionary, New York: Avon Books 1980. "Gauntlets," from the French "gant," actually refers to the wide cuff covering the wrist of one's "mitaine;" in medieval Europe, a gauntlet was originally either a steel-plated elbow-length leather glove used in tournament fighting, or a padded glove used in falconry. By the late 19th century, decorative fringed leather gauntlets became popular among cowboys, Indians, and western military officers.

(42) Hides and Skins, p. 19

(43) See the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Second Edition 1989, Oxford University Press 2003 under entries for "beaver," "fur," "muskrat," and "seal."

(44) Mittford M. Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1951, p. 97.

(45) See the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Second Edition 1989, Oxford University Press 2003 under entries for "beaver," "fur," "muskrat," and "seal."

(46) For beaver terms, see A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, p. 96-98. For an example of woven mittens with beaver fur sewn on, see Arts Traditionnels des Amerindiens, p. 78.

(47) Boston Daily Advertiser Vol. XL, No. 10, 630, Monday, December 12, 1831, Old Sturbridge Village Reproduction, courtesy of American Antiquarian Society, 1994. Also see The Massachusetts Spy, Worcester, MA, Vol. 67, No. 1, January 3, 1838.

(48) "La Belle Assemblee January 1812," Fashions for February 1812, Winter Walking Dress http://www.moonstonerp/reglib/plate212.htm

(49) Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, Garden City, N.Y: International Collectors 1944, p. 123.

(50) See the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Second Edition 1989, Oxford University Press 2003 under entry for "bear."

(51) M. Schele de Vere, Americanisms; The English of the New World, New York: Charles Scribner & Company 1872, p.. 35. Also see A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, p. 1068 and 1098.

(52) From list prepared at Niagara, April 28, 1778, in Molly Brant: A Legacy of Her Own, by Lois M. Huey and Bonnie Pulis, Youngstown, NY: Old Fort Niagara Association, 1997, p. 37.

(53) "Gazette and Mercury," Greenfield, Massachusetts, Vol. 7 No. 530, August 15, 1837. This family group included John Watso, the Vermont hunter who had been rescued by Donald McIntosh from the waters of otter Creek a few years earlier.

(54) Conversations with Edward Meador, Curator of Historical Costume at Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, Massachusetts confirm the widespread local use of Indian-made leather moccasins, mittens, and gloves, throughout the 19th century. My gloves were purchased at the "Old Thymes" antique shop on Route 20 in Sturbridge shortly before the shop closed. The owner volunteered the information when I asked whether the gloves were Indian or Yankee-made. For the Deerfield gloves, see Historic Deerfield accession number HD 85.94 A & B - driving gloves donated by Mrs. Emily Abercrombie.

(55) See J. Russell Harper, Kreighoff, Toronto, Ontario: Key Porter Books 1999.

(56) For example, see Huron mittens and gloves at the Museum of Civilization at Hull, Quebec, on-line at http://collections.civilization.ca/cgi-bin/emupublic

(57) See Farmington Area Historical Society, "History of Rural Free Delivery" online at http://www.geocities.com/fahsmn/post_office_history.htm 2001

Great Thanks to Marge Bruchac for contributing the article above to NativeTech!

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