Top Hats and Toppled Trees

Recently I went running in Minnesota and encountered a beaver-chewed tree.  Where was the beaver? Scared off? On a coffee break? Sent off by the Chief Beaver to chew another tree instead? This particular beaver never did return.  Alas, the tree is done for.  It fell over in the last high wind.

Beaver-chewed tree

Beaver-chewed tree

The expression “beaver hat” came to mind, the kind of hat I would call a “top hat.”



I noticed that at the recent wedding of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the children were allowed to choose what to wear, and one of the boys chose a black top hat, which he wore, elegantly, with shorts. (I’m also going to go out out a limb and say that Angelina’s wedding dress and veil, embroidered with drawings by her six children, was the most beautiful and meaningful wedding attire I’ve ever seen.  What an inspired use for refrigerator art!)

I started wondering why hats in the past couple of centuries were made from beaver fur. I learned that the beaver’s fur, sheared off, boiled, and pressed into thick felt, was so pliable it could be made into almost any shape of hat.  Beaver hats were warm, soft, and resistant to water. Between 1550 and about 1850, huge numbers of such hats were made, for both civilian and military use.

Some varieties of the beaver hat

Public Domain

Everyone had to have at least one. Wealthy men, like Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, had several. The European beaver was hunted and trapped to near-extinction.  Traders turned to North America, where the American beaver was plentiful. In fact, demand for beaver pelts was a big factor in colonial expansion in the New World, especially in Canada.  The Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670, made a fortune in the beaver trade.  The company still exists today.

Finally, in the mid-1850’s, silk hats became more fashionable.  The beaver could relax a bit.

American Beaver by Steve, Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0

American Beaver by Steve, Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0

As far as I can see, the American beaver is thriving wherever there is water. I encountered this beaver-chewed tree in the middle of winter next to a stream in Colorado.

Beaver-chewed tree on Yampa River in Steamboat Springs

Beaver-chewed tree on stream in Colorado

People trying to maintain waterside property are not fond of the beaver.  Still, I have to admire the little guy’s energy and ambition.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe, and the many connections with development elsewhere in the world.

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