The Smell of Furs

Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

One of the most important things I did as I prepared my manuscript of my first book for publication, was that I gave it to four people to read.

One of those readers questioned the fact that I said that the furs smelled. “What did they smell like?” he asked.

Great question, but not the easiest question to answer, by any means. In his book Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson across Western North America, Jack Nisbet says: “An average beaver pelt weighed a little better than a pound, and one pressed pack… usually topped ninety pounds. Warm or wet weather would draw out the smell of any unscraped fat, and the fur bundles often made rancid travelling companions.”

“Rancid.” That’s a good start, and for a while I thought I might have to be satisfied with that answer. Then, as I flipped through the index of the Beaver Magazine (now Canada’s History), I discovered a heading that read: “the distinctive smell of furs.”

In an early issue is an article by J.D.J. Forbes, “Show Week in the HBC London Fur Warehouse.” Beaver Magazine, April 1921. In the London warehouse, each fur is stored on its own floor; therefore it is easy to discover what smell each animal’s fur carries.

Mr. Forbes wrote: “Another thing that strikes the casual visitor is the variety of odours he encounters as he goes from one floor to another. The distinctive odour of the muskrat, for example, is quite easily distinguished from the peculiar smell which clings to the marten or Canadian sable. Bears have odours of their own, and that connected with the black or brown bear is quite different from the polar’s flavour. Otter and mink skins each have faint but recognizable smells, and fisher is at times quite pungent. Fur seals in brine and dry hair seals are not difficult to scent, and wolves soon betray their presence. Beaver and foxes perhaps are most free from odour, whilst the smell of wild skunk is the most obnoxious.”

The furs are quite beautiful, Mr. Forbes tells us. No fur is more “sparkling” than the skunk’s when it is cleaned; the soft richness of the beaver fur is only revealed after processing, when the long copper-coloured hairs are removed. The otter fur is close and short and much more durable than the rougher coat of a fox or a wolf.

Canadian sable or marten, mink, fisher, and lynx, are on the floor above the otter. These are the fine furs, with mink being the least valuable (though perhaps the most popular). Lynx is silky but fragile; and usually dyed black before use. The variety of colour in marten skins is extraordinary, he says, but the darker colours are the most valuable.

Fisher, the largest members of the weasel family, has the most handsome coat and can almost compare in value, at times, with the sable. Bear skins take up more room on the floor than the more valuable furs. Wolves have coarse fur; wolverines were distinguished by their distinctive saddle of dark colour surrounded by a belt of lighter coloured hair.

In the HBC warehouses, the valuable fox skins were stored on the top floor. There was red, blue, white, and silver foxes. Both the white fox, and the blue fox (which has shades of blue and brown), were Arctic breeds; Anderson would not have seen them in New Caledonia. The silver fox was the most valuable fur of them all, with its fine hair and beautiful coloring that ranged from pure silver-white to a deep, rich black.

I also know that A. C. Anderson called some of the fox he saw in New Caledonia “cross foxes.” According to Mr. Forbes, “Cross fox is another very popular article which in size and texture is similar to its kinsman the red fox, but it differs from the latter in that its back is usually covered with silvery hair and a more or less well-defined black cross is to be seen on its neck…”

So that is a lot of information on the smell of the furs. In my first book The Pathfinder, I boiled it down to this:

“Anderson quickly learned the rhythm of the Fraser’s Lake post. In spring the rivers opened and the men shook out the year’s take in furs before packing them for transport by boat to Fort Vancouver. Beaver was still plentiful, but the Dakelh also brought in the furs of the river and sea otter, black bear, silver fox, mink and wolf. The fur trade was a smelly business, and hot weather caused any fat left on the pelts to go rancid. In addition, many of these animals had anal glands that gave off a musky odour. The marten gave off a peculiar aroma that different from the mild-smelling mink and otter. Bear skins had a faint smell, but fisher skins often had a pungent odour. Wolf skins stank, beaver and fox had almost no scent at all and the stench of skunk skins hung in the air even tough their scent glands had been removed.”

However, The Pathfinder is now no longer available — except that I have a few copies of it left. If you wish to purchase a copy, for $20 Canadian, get in touch with me please, through my contact page if nowhere else. It makes me very sad to be cutting so many of the pages that supported that book from my blog. But the important stories, like this one, will remain. And Anderson’s stories will be included in a new book, which will be a “Literary A.C. Anderson” — years down the road, I am afraid. It will be fun to write — I know so much more now than I did then.

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. Updated 2020. All rights reserved.