Monday, February 22, 2016

Baby It's Cold Outside

by Erin Doane, curator
Child in fur-lined coat and hat, 1880s
From pretty much the beginning of human existence, we have been wearing fur to stay warm. The museum has a fairly large collection of items made with fur, from coats and stoles to muffs and fur-lined boots. Some pieces were made for functionality, like the coat and mittens Ross Marvin wore on his first Arctic expedition, while others were obviously made only for fashion, like this hat decorated with ermine tails.
Hat decorated with ermine tails and veil, 1950
In the Victorian era, fur was used on all sorts of clothing and accessories. Both winter and summer dresses were decorated with fur trim. Coats and capes with fur cuffs and collars were popular with both men and women. Wide fur stoles and plush muffs provided warmth and style.

Voided velvet cape with fur trim, 1880
Fur-lined carriage boots, 1890s
Woman wearing a wide fur stole, 1860s
Over the years, nearly every type of fur has been used in fashionable clothing and accessories. Furs from mink, sable, and fox never go out of fashion while furs from monkeys, dogs, and skunks were only trendy for short periods of time. Perhaps one of the most disturbing furs that seems to stay in fashion is known as astrakhan. The beautiful tight, curly fur is taken from fetal karakul lambs.
Astrakhan and velveteen muff, 1910s
The “modern fur coat,” with fur worn on the outside rather than as a lining, first appeared in the mid-19th century but did not gain popularity until the early 20th century. In the 1920s, people wore large, full fur coats to stay warm while traveling in open motorcars. Similarly, college men wore raccoon coats while attending football games. By the middle of the century, new techniques of processing and dying furs made it possible for more people than ever before to own fur coats.

Man's fur coat, late 19th-early 20th century
Ladies in fur coats, 1946
The museum has collected many pieces of fur, not only because they are examples of historic fashion but also because of the stories they tell. The coat pictured below was made by Jesse Green Furrier, Elmira. The donor told the story of how his wife took pelts that were trapped-locally to Jesse Green to have them made into a coat.  He remembered her traveling several times to Elmira for fittings while it was being made. Then she came home with the truly one-of-a-kind, hand-made fur coat.

Front and back views of coat made by Jesse Green Furrier
One other fur in our collection has a very interesting story that I just learned several weeks ago. This fur pelt brings us back to arctic explorer, Ross Marvin. The museum has many of his items including clothing and personal souvenirs from his voyage. Among his things is what I assumed to be a wolf’s pelt, as there was little documentation in our records. A short time ago, Kelli came across a 1931 Elmira Star-Gazette article about Marvin’s collection with a list of items. On that list was “one Eskimo dog skin (taken from a dog eaten by Marvin on his first expedition to keep from starving.)”

Eskimo dog skin brought back by Ross Marvin, 1905


  1. people used different means to keep themselves warm during the cold months wherever they lived, I find it interesting the huge variety of not just coats but shoes, hats, gloves etc were also used.

  2. Excellent article. Is it in China that eating dogs is traditional?

  3. Hello, is there an email of someone who has more information regarding Jesse Green that I could contact? It is for a project I am working on.
    Many thanks,

    1. Hi Tara. Our curator's email is

    2. Tara, Jesse Green is/was my grandfather. I know you wrote the request about finding someone with more info on Jesse Green a couple of years ago, however I am interested in what project you were working on and what information you have. I prefer you use this my email to reach out to me if you like-