Furs. Under the name of furs may be included the skins of almost all those animals which, for the sake of protection against cold, have for a covering an under layer of soft woolly, or downy texture, through which grows in most instances an upper one of a more bristly or hairy nature; some by nature possess more of the under coat, and others more of the upper, the proportion varying considerably in different animals and countries. In winter the fur becomes thicker in growth, thereby improving the quality and value for commercial purposes; young animals too possess thicker coats than full-grown ones. In some instances the under-fur alone is used in manufacturing, while the upper hairs are removed as in the fur-seal.
The more general use of furs in all civilized countries has made the fur trade of the present day of even greater importance than in those flourishing days when the fur traders were the chief pioneers of the North American continent; the quantities of many fur-bearing animals have vastly increased, especially of those rather small mammals which seem to thrive and breed quickly in the proximity of settlements; the larger ones, on the other hand, such as bears, beavers, etc. will in the course of time, if not protected, become generally reduced in numbers, a fate which has overtaken the buffalo or North American bison.
The chief supply of furs is obtained from Siberia and the N. parts of North America, and, as these tracts are for the greater part of the year frostbound, the fur-bearing animals enjoy a comparatively unmolested life; the fur, therefore grows thickly during the winter season, and is in its best condition when the animal is trapped in the spring; large quantities also of the smaller sorts are found in the United States; Europe produces immense numbers of common furs, such as rabbits, hares, foxes, etc. besides the more valuable stone and baum (tree) martens, though the larger animals have almost disappeared as the countries have become more and more cleared and inhabited; South America yields nutrias and chinchillas; while Australia exports rabbits, opposums, and kangaroos, and Africa monkey and leopard skins. Nearly all fur-skins are brought to the market in their raw or undressed state.
The two leading companies are the Hudson Bay Company, established in 1670, and the Alaska Commercial Company in 1870; the American Fur Company of New York, the Northwest Company, and the Russo-American Company of Moscow once held important positions, but they have long since been broken up or amalgamated. The furs of the two first-named companies, together with large quantities consigned from numerous private traders, are annually offered in London for public auction in January and March, with a smaller sale in June; periodical sales during the year are held besides of Australian, African, and other skins. Many important fairs take place in Europe and Asia, of which the chief are at Leipsic in Germany (at Easter and Michaelmas), Nijni Novgorod and Irbit in Russia, and smaller ones at Frankfort (Germany), Ishim and Kiakhta (both in Siberia).
The usual mode of dressing furs is by steeping them in liquor for a short time, after which the pelts are "fleshed" over a sharp knife (to get rid of the excess of fat, etc.), and subsequently dried off; they are next trodden by the feet in tubs of warm sawdust and common butter, by which means the pelt or leather is rendered supple; the skin is finished in dry sawdust, and beaten out. Certain furs, such as beaver (now to a limited extent), nutria, hare, and rabbit, are used in the manufacture of hats and other felted fabrics, for which purposes the under-fur alone is retained; it is cut off from the pelt, separated from the upper hair, and felted together by means of various machinery.
Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.