Saturday, December 29, 2012

How much did a beaver hat cost?


For those of us who interact with the visiting public at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, one of the Frequently Asked Questions is “how much did a beaver hat cost back then?” The answers include “it’s complicated,” or “it’s hard to tell” or “we don’t really know.” But I think the most common answer is some version of “a lot.” So how much is “a lot”?
As I hope will come through in this posting, the best answer I can come up with at this point is “it was a considerable expense, something like a week’s wages for a working man, so it was limited mainly to the middling and wealthy classes, and it was a sign of a certain social status to be able to afford a beaver hat.” That said, anyone attempting to answer the question can abandon all thought of common prices in the modern equivalent of “thousands of dollars” that I have heard bandied about. There were probably some very expensive hats made for very wealthy customers who were into conspicuous consumption. But if what were commonly called "fine beaver hats" were only a luxury item for the super rich, logic suggests that the fur trade as we know it would not have been sustained on such a large scale over more than two centuries (c. 1625-1850). If you’re ready for this, hold on to your, um . . . hat, and keep reading.
We have a pretty good idea of how much a beaver pelt was worth at Fort Vancouver, either in currency or in trade goods.  
It is much harder to pin down the price of beaver hats in the retail markets of Europe or the USA. In a very direct sense the retail price of hats was not all that relevant for Hudson’s Bay Company’s bottom line. The HBC, after all, did not make hats. What mattered most to HBC was the wholesale price for animal pelts when they were auctioned in London or sold to brokers, who were the buyers at the wholesale auctions.(1)
The fur brokers then sold to hat makers, whose many skilled employees then engaged in something like 30 labor-intensive steps before the fine underlayer of beaver fur was made into felt, which was made into hats. It is generally agreed that pure beaver fur made the best hats, but many “beaver” hats contained only a certain percentage of beaver fur, with muskrat, rabbit, and especially sheep wool making up the rest. One popular (and cheaper) type of hat, called “plated” or “roram,” had a wool felt body with beaver fur brushed onto the outer surface, for looks. And beaver fur was not the only raw material that went into hats, which included mercury used in the felting process, shellac or other stiffeners, cloth liners, leather sweatbands, and silk ribbon or other external hatbands or edge binding. Finally, markups from the wholesale price a merchant paid to the retail price to the buyer of the finished hat, were probably something like fifty to a hundred percent.
Still, the overall market for beaver hats, levels of demand, and affordability relative to common levels of income, are all part of the context for the fur trade, and the success of HBC’s business model centered on the fur trade. In the big picture the broad demand for felt hats that grew in Europe from the early 1600s and fell off dramatically when fashion changed to silk hats in the second third of the 1800s marks the rise and decline of the fur trade as one of North America’s driving economic forces.
With these complications in mind, here are some tantalizing hints:
In the inventory of goods on hand at Fort Vancouver on June 1, 1832, one of the items listed is “24 ladies fine beaver hats” for which the Company paid 11 shillings each. The total cost for 24 hats was thus £13.4s.0d. We know that HBC’s price markup for retail sales was 100% for the general public and its own officers. At that rate, if an outsider showed up to buy a hat (as Narcissa Whitman might have in 1836), she would have paid 22 shillings. The online inflation calculator I find most useful (measuringworth.com) says that 22 shillings in 1832 would be roughly equal to £79.70 today, or about $123.00 in today's dollars.(2) “A lot,” right? But not astronomically off the charts. But this was for the women’s model. Apparently there were no men’s beaver hats in stock at Fort Vancouver in 1832.
For another data point: detailed research on the cost of living in London, England, in the 1770s includes a man’s “fine beaver hat” for 21 shillings.(3) That is roughly equal to £106.00 today, or $164.00 in today's dollars. This source says that the same 21 shillings in the 1770s would pay the wages of a journeyman silversmith for one week, pay for 12 French lessons, or buy a dozen bottles of Portuguese wine. A wig for a clerk in a public office or a brass barometer cost 18 shillings. A pair of velvet knee breeches cost 30 shillings. A pair of men’s silk stockings retailed for 17 shillings 4 pence. The weekly wage of an unskilled laborer was 9 shillings. In other words, a fine beaver hat was probably out of the reach of the working classes. And while it was not a trivial expense for a man about town, a pair of silk hose cost only a bit less, a case of imported wine would cost just as much, a wig somewhat less, and velvet breeches considerably more.
Another source, discussing Pennsylvania in the era of the American Revolution, the late 1700s, notes that “old ladies, among Friends [Quakers] . . . wore large white beaver hats, with scarcely the sign of a crown, and which was, indeed, confined to the head by silk cords tied under the chin.  Eight dollars would buy such a hat, when beaver fur was more plentiful. They lasted such ladies almost a whole life of wear.” Quakers, while solid citizens (and wearers of beaver hats, as the image on the Quaker Oats box confirms), were not known for ostentatious dressing.
As for men’s hats, the same Annals of Pennsylvania had this to say:

“   Until the period of the Revolution, every person who wore a fur hat had it always of entire beaver. Every apprentice, at receiving his "freedom", received a real beaver at a cost of six dollars. Their every day hats were of wool, and called felts.  What were called roram hats, being fur faced upon wool felts, came into use directly after the peace, and excited much surprise as to the invention. Gentlemen's hats, of entire beaver, universally cost eight dollars.” (4)

The Measuring Worth online inflation calculator suggests that eight dollars in 1785 (taken to be “directly after the peace” of 1783), would be something like $185.00 today. And the six dollars for an apprentice’s graduation gift, a “real beaver” perhaps not of “entire beaver” but surely better than his everyday wool felt hat, would be something like $140.00 today.
            BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
            Although the Hudson’s Bay Company was much more concerned with the wholesale price of raw furs, they did buy hats to stock their trading posts. I’ve already mentioned woman’s fine beaver hats in 1832, when no men’s hats were included in the inventory. Here is the way the supply of hats that arrived at Fort Vancouver on the supply ship Cowlitz in February1841 appears in Company records: (5)



This is the transcription, beginning right after the 4 gross (576) “Brass Jew’s Harps,” with quotation marks and “ditto” expanded:

                                                                                 Per item cost               Total
       #   Description                                                 shillings/pence               £/s/d
     20   Men’s s[uper]fine Black Beaver Hats                 19/0                    19/0/0
     40   Men’s fine plated hats                                           9/0                    18/0/0
     30   Men’s fine waterproof hats                                  12/6                  18/15/0
   120   Men’s Com[mon] wool hats                                  2/9                  16/10/0
   110   Men’s fine wool hats                                             4/6                  24/15/0
     30   Men’s Spanish hats                                             19/7                    29/7/6
     20   Men’s Spanish hats                                             13/1                    13/1/8
     30   Wom[en]s Round Beaver hats                              7/0                  10/10/0

Followed by 40 doz[en] tinsel hat cords, 15 dozen oiled silk hat covers, and 2 dozen waxed silk hat covers. (Apparently then as now people with nice hats wanted to protect them from the rain.)
            This is how these figures roughly translate into wholesale costs and retail prices per hat in today’s US dollars: (6)

                                                                              Wholesale cost         Retail Price  
            Description                                                  (US dollars)         (US dollars)
            Men’s s[uper]fine Black Beaver Hats             101.00                   202.00
            Men’s fine plated hats                                       48.00                     96.00
            Men’s fine waterproof hats                               66.10                   132.20
            Men’s Com[mon] wool hats                             13.90                     27.80
            Men’s fine wool hats                                         23.50                     47.00
            Men’s Spanish hats                                         105.11                   210.22
            Men’s Spanish hats                                           69.30                   138.60
            Wom[en]s Round Beaver hats                          37.30                       74.6

There’s a lot to absorb here. One take-away is a solid comparison of the prices of the various types and grades of hats listed. Roughly speaking, a fine beaver hat cost twice as much as a plated hat of wool felt with beaver fur applied to the surface. A fine wool felt hat cost half as much as a plated hat, and a common wool hat, in turn, cost about half as much as a fine wool hat, and only a fraction of the price of a fine beaver hat. There were 230 wool felt hats in this shipment, compared to only 20 fine beaver models. That would seem to be appropriate for the market demand HBC might have expected in 1841, before the influx of wagon-borne American “emigrants” began to arrive in large numbers, at a time when there were relatively few men in the entire Columbia District/Oregon Country who might be looking to acquire a fine beaver hat in any given year--or who could afford one.
For a few more comparisons, in the same 1841 shipment the wholesale cost of a flintlock musket with 3 1/2-foot barrel, HBC’s “common Indian gun,” was 22 shillings, more than a fine beaver hat at 19 shillings. A “dark blue cloth capot with hood” cost the company 21 shillings 6 pence. A 3 ½-point blanket cost the Company 9 shillings 3 pence, and a man’s “flashy flowered silk vest” cost 9 shillings 4 pence, meaning that 2 such blankets or vests were worth basically the same as a fine beaver hat. A “men’s fine cloth jacket” cost 19 shillings 6 pence, slightly more than a fine beaver hat. A pair of “men’s blucher shoes” was 8 shillings 6 pence wholesale. “Men’s grey trousers” cost the Company 13 shillings 6 pence a pair. And so on. If you needed a good hat, as every gentleman did, it was an expense roughly in line with other clothing items (or bed covers) worthy of your status.
As for the “Spanish hats,” the best of which cost more than a fine beaver hat, I speculate that they were wide-brimmed hats of high quality materials and construction, favored by the californios and possibly destined for the HBC’s “California Establishment” at Yerba Buena, the old name for what became San Francisco. If so, they would probably have been traded for a certain number of dried cowhides—but that’s material for a future posting.
(For a little more context: if you search the Internet for “beaver hat prices” you will see that in today’s market a dress fedora or cowboy hat claiming at least some beaver fur in the felt will run you anywhere from around $300 to $800—not counting specialty hats made for the reenactment crowd and those with an itch for a 100% pure beaver hat that absolutely must be scratched.)
If anyone reading this has any other information that might help us pin down the retail prices of beaver (and other types of) hats “back in the day,” I would very much like to receive an email note at tomholloway62(a)gmail.com

NOTES:
(1) An informative overview of the English fur market, hat manufacturing processes, and wholesale marketing strategies is David Corner, “The Tyranny of Fashion: The Case of the Felt-Hatting Trade in the Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Textile History, 22:2 (Autumn 1991). I thank Dr. James Hanson of the Museum of the Fur Trade for pointing me to this source.

(2) "Fort Vancouver Depot Inventory, 1st June 1832," Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), B/223/d/16-40 (microfilm in Fort Vancouver NHS research library). At the 1832 exchange rate between British and US currency, 22 shillings was equal to $5.34 at that point in time. Any calculation of currency inflation (loss of purchasing power) over long periods is only approximate. For one thing, the basket of goods used to measure purchasing power has changed dramatically from 1832 to today. As the economists at Measuring Worth point out HERE, "there is no single 'correct' measure of value over time, and economic historians use one or more different series depending on the context of the question." I use these numbers only as something better than the alternatives, which are a shrug of the shoulders, or a wild guess.

(3) Liza Picard, Dr.Johnson’s London (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p. 296 in the Appendix listing “cost of living, currency, and prices” during the active professional life of one of the major literary figures of London in the 1760s-70s, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1794), of whom James Boswell wrote the famous biography, Life of Samuel Johnson.

(4) Watson, John F., Annals of Pennsylvania, Vol 1 (1857)
The online version is unpaginated. These quotations are from the following section, Ch. 15-18:
http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/philadelphia/areahistory/watson0107.txt
I am grateful to Dr. James Hanson of the Museum of the Fur Trade for pointing me to this source.

(5) “Invoice of Goods Received at Fort Vancouver on Barque Cowlitz, February 1841,” HBCA, B/223/d/139 (microfilm in Fort Vancouver NHS research library), I thank Theresa Langford, Curator, and Meagan Huff, Museum Technician/Librarian at Fort Vancouver NHS, for their assistance in providing access to this and other sources available at the site.

(6) The wholesale cost in 2011 dollars is derived by the conversion and inflation calculators at measuringworth.com. Of course such calculations over extended times are rough approximations, but they are better than mere guesses, as explained in THIS ESSAY on the Measuring Worth site or in the FAQ at the bottom of THIS PAGE. The retail price is calculated on the cost+100% markup HBC charged to “Settlers and Missionaries” as well as to the Company’s Commissioned Officers (Chief Factors and Chief Traders) during the winter season. HBC employees of the “servant” category were charged a 50% markup over the company’s wholesale cost. These pricing policies are discussed in John Hussey, “Historic Structures Report” Vol. 1 (1972), p. 190-1, note 17, reproduced in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), Table 12, p. 150.
            Hussey's work and other online sources on Fort Vancouver in the Hudson's Bay Co. era are discussed in THE POSTING which immediately precedes the one you are now reading on historic beaver hat prices.


9 comments:

  1. Nice work Tom, and very useful. I am however skeptical of those inflation "calculators"--the entire economy was so different in the 19th century that I think it is misleading to state "X dollars then was like Y dollars now." So I a very glad to see you also giving the prices of other objects at that time.

    An old fur trade historian friend of mine, Fred Fausz, has a whole rant about myths surrounding beaver hats within the historical reenactor community. I wish he were online more, I'd love to hear his take.

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  2. Thanks very much for the note, Larry.
    You are completely right about the inflation calculator problem, but as I claim (buried in Note 6), the best of them are better than the alternatives, which are shrugging the shoulders or wild guesses. One reason for doing this research is to provide myself and other volunteer reenactors at Ft. Vancouver with something useful to say in conversation with the interested public--the people who show up at the park, with a wide range of interests and prior knowledge. As for the original prices, when we quote them to visitors in the pounds/shillings/pence of the 1840s, we get mostly blank stares in response--they have no frame of reference for those numbers, and understandably so. What does 19 shillings for a hat "mean"? That's why I was glad to be able to provide a few other item prices from Dr. Johnson's London and the HBC accounts, as contemporary context for the price of hats.
    I have no training and minimal experience with Public History, so I'll ask you: What do the experts in the field say about how to discuss such topics with the interested public? My own experience in the trenches, talking to Park visitors, confirms that many people are interested to know the answers to such economic questions as "what was a beaver pelt worth" or "how much did a beaver hat cost." What does Public History say about how to deal with those interests?
    Thanks for your help.

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  3. Tom thanks for the interesting post, and, err, hats off to you for digging into the topic!

    In your response to the inquisitive visitor, I think you've touched on a key aspect above: the comparison. How can you use the comparison to help the visitor connect in their own, individual way to the site and its significance? In NPS interpretive trainings, we focus on the universal concept -- something abstract that everyone can relate to, but in their own, individual way. A good example is "family," or "income." These mean something to you, me, Larry, and everyone else, but I'd bet that our understandings would be different, based on life experience, etc. The interpretive training that the park offers volunteers hits on this a bit, and if you haven't yet been able to take a class, I'd highly recommend it.

    That said, the weekly wage comparison you cite above might present a bit of a complication. The HBC employees did not receive a weekly wage, but rather contracted for an annual salary and largely charged costs from the "company store" against their employee account. Perhaps comparing an employee's annual salary to the cost of a beaver hat might help. Using your adept phrasing above and adapting it slightly, “it was a considerable expense, so it was limited mainly to the middling and wealthy classes, and it was a sign of a certain social status to be able to afford a beaver hat. For example, a working-class employee who might have initially trapped the beaver -- say, a 'milieu' who worked as a paddler and trapper for a fur brigade -- would have earned an annual salary of 17 pounds in 1844. The price of the finished beaver hat represents about XX% of his annual salary." This opens up the opportunity for further interaction and introspection, too, especially with young adults. "If you were this employee, would you consider buying a hat? Why or why not? What clothing items define status today? Why? Would you or your friends spend XX% of the money you earn this year for an item of fashion? Why or why not? If so, what item?"

    Just a few fleeting thoughts. Thanks for the posts, and please keep them coming!

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  4. Thanks very much for your observations, Greg. The suggestions on how to discuss these issues in a way that Park visitors can fit into their own frame of reference are especially helpful.
    As for the discussion of weekly wages, as I hope is clear from the context, those numbers refer to London in the 1770s, not to Fort Vancouver in the 1840s. And the introductory comment on the "middling and wealthy classes" is meant to refer to the market for most of the beaver hats ever produced: Europe and eventually (eastern) North America. I brought in the data on the hats HBC shipped here in 1841 because they are generally consistent with the few other data points I was able to track down (for London and Philadelphia), in support of my general point in this brief essay: A fine beaver hat, while a significant expense, was not priced in the stratosphere and accessible only by the super rich few.
    The 1841 list also provides a more complete picture of the range of hat types and their relative values. With this nudge I will be more explicit and say that the more numerous wool felt hats could probably have been acquired by the more numerous employees of HBC's servant category and others in the area of limited means, and the few fine beaver hats were probably acquired by the few who could afford them--and for whom they would have been an important marker of status, similar to the situation in Europe at the time.
    As for the annual income of HBC middlemen and others of the servant/engagé category, a further complication is that those numbers don't paint the whole picture of compensation and cost of living. Most employees apparently received a food ration from the Company, and whether or not the Company actually provided housing, it seems that employees did not need to use part of their salary to pay for housing. So £17 would go farther than if rent and groceries had to come out of it.
    I have discussed HBC's wage policies and salary levels in the course of telling the story of Dairyman Laurent Sauvé in the posting on the question of "How did Sauvie Island get its name?" last August:

    In due course I'll be working up some of the other information in the Abstracts of Servants' Accounts" I've been digging into, and posting it here.

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  5. Enjoyed it, but how about a Dutch beaver pelt circa 1640?

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  7. Beaver hat really a expensive for lower class people but it must be use middle and high classes people easily. They can buy it from anywhere in their limited cost.
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  8. Thanks for the note, Robert. This posting refers only to felt hats made frobeaver fur, not to fur hats like the ones you link to. Also, it is a historical discussion of the early 1800s, not the present day.

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  9. I have been a regular visitor of this site and I love reading blogs posted here.They are truly very well written,precise and to the point. Thanks.

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