Robes Of State

Northern members of the weasel family wear fine, lustrous furs that are not only beautiful in themselves, but have also become symbols of luxury and status. Native Americans used ermine skins to trim not just their ceremonial headdresses and pipes but also their clothing and hair. Headdresses were often draped with many ermine skins falling to either side of the bearer's head (Figure 3.7) and decorations on ceremonial shirts included ermine skins. Pipes sometimes boasted many ermine skins among other decorations. Not only men used ermine

Figure 3.7 Native Americans incorporated weasel skins into their ceremonial headdresses and pipes and used weasel skins for personal ornamentation. This portrait of Two Moons, a Cheyenne who fought at Little Big Horn, shows his headdress decorated with ermine skins falling to either side of his face. (Photograph by Edward S. Curtis.)

skins for decoration; women also ornamented their clothing and sometimes braided ermine skins into their hair with striking effect.

In medieval Europe, the furs of ermine, marten, and sable were reserved for the upper ranks of the nobility, while lesser folk had to make do with rabbit and cat. Ermine is traditionally worn by British justices and peers; in 1937, 50,000 ermine skins were sent from Canada to make robes for the coronation of King George VI (Haley 1975). There is an ironic contrast between the villainous reputation of living weasels (Chapter 1) and the use of their pelts to adorn the robes of the highest ranking justices.

Ermine skins were once very important in the international fur trade and still do have some value, though much less than before. In the late 1920s and early 1930s in New York State alone, Hamilton (1933) reckoned that 100,000 ermine skins were traded each year, at an average price conservatively estimated at $0.50 US each. These figures imply that, during an economic depression, stoats and longtails between them were generating an income of $50,000 a year for the rural community in that state alone. Likewise in Saskatchewan, around 60,000 to 70,000 longtails were taken every year during the 1930s. Since then, the total harvest of weasel skins in North America (all three species) has steeply declined (Figure 3.8). By the 1970s, the annual harvest of weasel pelts for the whole of the United States and Canada together was negligible, and those that

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1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000

Figure 3.8 Fur buyers' records show that the steady decrease in trading of weasel pelts (heavy line) in North America through the twentieth century correlates with the prices paid for pelts in constant dollars (light line). During the Depression, many weasels were trapped for their pelts despite the low prices paid. The modest increase in prices paid for pelts in the 1990s did not lead to increased trapping. (Data for pelts traded redrawn from Proulx 2000; data for pelt prices from Statistics Canada.)

1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000

Figure 3.8 Fur buyers' records show that the steady decrease in trading of weasel pelts (heavy line) in North America through the twentieth century correlates with the prices paid for pelts in constant dollars (light line). During the Depression, many weasels were trapped for their pelts despite the low prices paid. The modest increase in prices paid for pelts in the 1990s did not lead to increased trapping. (Data for pelts traded redrawn from Proulx 2000; data for pelt prices from Statistics Canada.)

were collected comprised only a tiny proportion (under 2%) of the millions of carnivore pelts traded in those years.

The lack of interest in weasel furs nowadays is clear from the huge fur warehouse of what used to be the Hudson's Bay Company in London. In 1984 there were no tradable weasel skins among their current stock of thousands upon thousands of pelts (C. M. King unpubl.). The reasons for the decline are probably that the small ermine skins are so fiddly to prepare, and that so many are required to make even a collar for an earl's cape. Cheaper kinds of fine, white fur can now be obtained elsewhere. It is certainly not that fur trapping has had any influence on weasel populations (Chapter 11). Nevertheless, the fur trade did, in its time, stimulate some important research on the biology of weasels, especially in the former Soviet Union and the United States.

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