GUEST CURATOR: Carolyn Crawford
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Robert Jenkins … has just imported … Fur Trimmings.”
Robert Jenkins carried a variety of materials for making clothing, like various textiles (including satins and silks), leather, and fur. These extravagant products came in various colors, including black, white, and crimson.
Marge Bruchac explains that during the colonial era “fur and leather garments in New England exemplified the intersection of Native American Indian and Euro-American material culture and fashion, in ways that crossed and blurred categories of class, wealth and ethnicity.” Before that, Bruchac continues, fur garments, such as coats and gloves, were primarily worn by affluent individuals in Europe. Fur indicated wealth or an association with nobility. In contrast, Native Americans of North America did not associate their furs with status. Instead, fur was often passed down through the generations and contributed to survival.
By the late eighteenth century, Europeans were actively involved in the fur trade with Native Americans. In the process, Europeans acquired and “adopted Native items like fur hats, leggings, mittens and moccasins, for warmth and comfort.” They were interested in practical attire. Many clothing items were designed from the soft fur of many animals, including muskrat, rabbit, fox, bear, otter and seal. In particular, fur hats became widely popular. They were even worn by runaway servants, such as John Cannon (according to an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1763), and colonial troops.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Despite his pledge to sell imported fabrics “at the very lowest Rates,” Robert Jenkins appeared to cater to customers of some means. The “large and fresh Assortment of Goods, suitable for the Season” that he had just imported from London may have included general merchandise of interest to colonists from diverse backgrounds, but among those goods he mentioned by name in his advertisement he opted to list several items that would have denoted the refinement and wealth of genteel customers.
Depending on how they were incorporated into garments, the “Fur Trimmings” may have been intended for customers of a certain social standing. On the other hand, Carolyn’s examination of how Anglo-Americans used fur in making clothing during the colonial era demonstrates that fur was not exclusively reserved for the better sorts. She points to an interesting case of historical contingency in determining the social value and meanings of certain garments.
Consider how fur garments have been interpreted during various periods of European and American history. In modern times fur garments have often been associated with wealth, power, and, especially, refinement. In modern America, many people reserve their fur coats and other garments for special occasions. Similarly, as Carolyn notes, wearing fur garments was associated with the nobility in medieval Europe. It might be tempting, therefore, to assume that fur clothing has always been an indicator of status. However, that was not the case in colonial America. Instead, many settlers adopted fur garments because they were practical, not to signal their status.