The fur trade  Share

The collection of commodity money at the National Bank of Belgium museum now includes a recently acquired beaver pelt from Canada. Beaver skins were once used not only for clothing but also as money.

Beaver pelt of the collection of commodity money

Beaver pelt of the collection of commodity money

There are two types of beaver: the North American beaver (castor canadensis) and the European/Asian beaver (castor fiber).
Beavers have a great influence on their environment: they build large dams to accommodate their lodges and forage in the resulting ponds. With their large teeth and powerful jaws they have no trouble cutting through trees with a diameter of 15cm or so in ten minutes.

The Canadian beaver is the largest rodent on the continent after the Capybara: it is between 70 and 90 cm long. The animal was hunted not only for its warm fur but also for its scent glands, castoreum. This substance is used in the perfume industry and in medicine.

Although many other animal skins were also traded, beaver fur was regarded as the best. Both the outer pelt (castor gras) and the underfur (duvet) were valuable. The underfur was particularly sought-after because it was ideal for making felt to be used in manufacturing all kinds of hats.
In the 19th century, top hats were all the rage for gentlemen, they were highly fashionable and exuded class. Moreover, ones made from genuine beaver fur were waterproof, unlike cheaper versions made from rabbit skins. The disadvantage was that mercury was used in the hat production process, which led to mercury poisoning among hat makers. The toxic effect caused damage to the brain, kidney, lungs and affected vision and speech. Hence the English expression “mad as a hatter”.

Top hat made of beaver pelts

Top hat made of beaver pelts

Owing to the huge demand for beaver, the animal became virtually extinct in Europe from the 16th century, so it was a godsend when French and English settlers in Canada at the beginning of the 17th century discovered large groups of beavers. Trade in all kinds of animal skins rapidly became a lucrative business: beaver pelts were sold in Europe for 20 times the Canadian purchase price.

One firm in particular made this its ‘core business’.

The Hudson Bay Company (established in 1670) was a business that concentrated almost exclusively on fur trading. It still exists today, and as such is one of the oldest companies in the world.
For centuries the HBC controlled the trade in skins in the English section of North America, known as ‘Rupert’s land’, named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a nephew of Charles II of England and the first director of the Hudson Bay Company. With an area of around 4 million square kilometres, the region covers almost a third of today’s Canada, including the Hudson Bay itself and the whole of its hinterland.

Via a network of settlements, forts and trading posts, the company had a monopoly over the trade in animal skins, mainly beaver pelts, for around two hundred years.

The sought-after beaver pelt soon became a means of exchange and payment: native peoples willingly traded skins for metal objects such as knives and axes. Later that extended to guns, woollen blankets, sugar, shoes and other items.
Beaver pelts were also a standard of value: for instance, 12 beaver pelts was the price of a gun or a pair of shoes. A silver earring cost one beaver pelt.
Eventually, the made beaver was used as the HBC unit of account: one made beaver (MB) stood for one top quality winter pelt. Summer pelts were worth a lot less than winter pelts, which were of course much thicker. Most of the articles and services traded in the HBC territory were valued and priced in made beaver.
Between 1774 and 1784 the salary of an official in Franklin (a district covering the east of what is now Tennessee) was around 300 MB per annum.

The Hudson Bay company began issuing coins instead of actual pelts. The coins were made of copper, or sometimes cut from cardboard if supplies of copper ran out. The coins were marked with the value in made beaver, and the company’s initials.

MB- Coin  marked with the value in « made beaver »

MB- Coin marked with the value in « made beaver »

In the 19th century the value of the made beaver gradually declined, and payments were increasingly made in cash, partly as a result of the progressive colonisation of the United States and the use of the dollar.
Meanwhile, other firms were also active in trading animal skins, and it gradually became clear that the animals being hunted were being depleted, as was the bison in North America.

A change in the fashion was good news for the beaver. From the mid-19th century, silk was used for making the top hats, and that heralded the end of the 250 year-old trade in animal skins from Canada. The traditional ‘suppliers’, the Indians, were driven out of their hunting areas, and that also greatly reduced the supply.

When the Canadian beaver was first hunted, there were an estimated 6 million animals, but by the mid-19th century they were almost extinct.

Canada recognises the role played by beavers in its development. The first postage stamp depicted a beaver (three pence beaver), and the back of the 5 cent coin which has been in circulation since 1937 shows a fine beaver’s head.

5 cent munt Canada

5 cent munt Canada

First postage stamp of Canada

First postage stamp of Canada

The beaver population is now recovering in Canada: the numbers are estimated at around 15 million.


Ann Vandorpe
Assistant Museum