Beaver-felt chapeau bras1
With embossed leather cockade,
plume, gold cord and gold tassels
Officer in Action
"The First Council with the Indians
Held by Lewis and Clark"
Engraving (artist unknown) from
Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, by Patrick Gass
(Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1810)
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, military styles and fashions continued to evolve. One example of this evolution was the beaver felt hat. By the early 1700s, the older style flop hats were turned up on the sides to prevent windy gusts from blowing them off the heads of soldiers and officers .often taking the wigs of officers along with them! By the 1740s and '50s old floppy acquired the shape of an equilateral triangle when seen from above. This shape changed to a triangle flattened across the front by the time of the American Revolution, becoming narrower and narrower until by 1800 the hat had but two sides instead of three. This new hat was properly calle a chapeau bras, or "arm hat," but was often was referred to as a "cocked hat." Convenient to carry folded under one arm, the chapeau bras measured about 23 inches between tips, and stood about 7 1/2 inches from the forehead to the top.
Beaver hats were favored by civilian as well as military men throughout Europe and the U.S. because they were sturdy and waterproof. The cloth was crafted from the fine underfur, or "wool," shaved from beaver pelts and separated from the coarser hair by a blowing process.
The softer fur was gradually applied to a revolving, perforated copper cone with the aid of a suction device, and smoothed with the hands. With the application of a spray of hot water, the fur fibers began to mat together into a durable fabric called "felt." The cone of wet fur was then transferred to a hat mold while still soft and warm, and worked into the desired shape. When the felt was dry, shellac was applied to the inside of the hat to help hold the shape. The outside was then polished to a glossy finish with brushes, irons, or sandpaper.
The shaved beaver skins were used in the manufacture of glue; the coarse outer hair was used in furniture upholstery.
1. Re-creation by Robert Moore, Historian at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis; Peyton C. Clark; Greg Hudson, Weeping Heart Trade Company, Ehrlanger, Kentucky. Photos by Jon Stealey.