On average, the North West Company handled about 100 000 lbs. of beaver annually. This makes up roughly half the total weight of pelts acquired in a trading year. Why was this bark chewing member of Order Rodentia so highly sought after by 19th century fur traders? Why not a greater interest in luxury furs such as arctic fox or mink? The answer is - hats, hats, hats!
The backbreaking labour over hundreds of portages and thousands of kilometres of canoe routes, the vicious and sometimes bloody competition, the huge costs of building large fur-trade posts such as Fort William, the mad hatters with their nerves destroyed, the Native people dying of smallpox-- all this toil and trouble took place so that European gentlemen, as well as women and children, could wear fashionable hats. Gentlemen wore tophats, ladies wore beaver bonnets, and children wore smaller versions of the same. But it was the gentleman's tophat that was the driving force behind the fur trade. And the styles were constantly changing, which helped to keep up the demand for beaver fur from Canada.
Once the fur was shipped to England, it was sold at auction to the highest bidder. At this point, the hatters took control of the process. To prepare the fur for felting, the guard hairs (outer layer of fur) had to be removed. The pelt was placed on the hatter's knee and he would pull out the guard hairs with a long knife or large tweezers, leaving only the beaver wool on the skin. A solution of nitrate of mercury would then be brushed on the pelt, to roughen the remaining fibres and increase the wool's matting properties. The wool was then shaved from the pelt with the knife.
If this sort of treatment seems unfortunate for our inoffensive friend the beaver, it was equally so for the hatter. Long periods of exposure to the mercury would eventually cause major problems with the hatter's central nervous system, affecting first the eyelids, then the fingers, tongue, arms and legs, sense of balance, and then finally the mental condition of the hatter - thus the expression "mad as a hatter."
Once the wool was shaved from the pelt, it was called "fluff." The fluff was carded, or pulled apart, so that it was ready for the rest of the felting process. At this point, the fluff for the hat was weighed out according to the intended size and thickness of the hat. This would usually amount to the amount of fluff that came from one beaver pelt - between 8 and 12 ounces. The fluff was placed on a square table with evenly spaced parallel slots. Over the table, a bow like a violin bow was suspended. The string of the bow was plucked, causing it to vibrate; the fluff underneath also started to vibrate. This vibration caused dust and dirt to fall out of the fluff and through the slots in the table. Also, the fluff began to spread out on the table and mat together to form a loose felt. Once this loose felt began to form, the hatter pressed down on the felt with a hatter's basket to mat the fibers more closely together. At this point, the pile of fluff had been turned into a large oval sheet about four feet (1.3m) long, three feet (1m) wide and six to twelve inches (15-30 cm) high. This sheet was worked into a triangular form called a gore. Two gores were combined into a cone shape, with a bit more fluff added for the brim. This cone-shaped "hat" was dipped into a mixture of sulfuric acid, beer-grounds, and winesediments, taken out, and worked over a cone with a rolling pin until it was about half of its original size. It was then forced tightly over a wooden block to give it the basic shape and size of the finished top hat, after which the brim was cut with a knife. The hat was dyed in a large copper vat - top hats could be almost any colour, depending on the dictates of the fashion at the time. The hat was also dipped into a glue-like solution to stiffen and waterproof it, and then the finishing touches were performed. The hat was given a satin lining, ribbon was applied to the brim, the maker's trademark was placed on the hatband - and the hat was ready for sale.