F is for Fur Puller

Today, the wearing of fur is uncommon. However, in Victorian society it was commonplace among the middle and upper classes.  Everybody from small babies to the elderly wore fur. The coats of the military fighting in the Crimea were lined with rabbit fur leading to many more women entering the profession as seen in a pamphlet from 1889: ‘At the time of the Crimean war a great many women became fur pullers, for large numbers of rabbit-skins were then wanted to line the coats of soldiers.’[1]  Besides the soldiers’ clothes, furs were used everywhere as seen in this little girl’s cape, made from rabbit fur and lined with satin.


Little girl’s white rabbit fur cape c 1890. c.Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The production of furs for clothing purposes was very much part of daily life, and fur pulling or the more pleasant task of fur sewing was the occupation of thousands of women, most of whom were working in their own homes on piece rates.

Fur pulling was argued to occupy one of the lowest places in the ranks of women’s labour. It was, as argued by Charles Booth, one of the worst for sweating and exploitation, as well as undoubtedly horrific work. The skins, bought in from the colonies – primarily Australia – were treated with chemicals to preserve them, irritating the skin, eyes and lining of the respiratory system of the fur puller. The season for fur work in general ran from May to November, so, ‘the work, which is disagreeable and unhealthy, has to be done in the hottest part of the year, and is done very often in little workshops or in private rooms, often evading inspection altogether.’[2]

Several times a week the women would have to travel (at their own expense) to their ‘shop’ to collect the furs (often, as many complained bitterly, being left to wait for hours thus cutting their ability to earn an income), and then, having returned home, work for on average 10 – 11 hours a day, for on average 1/- to 1/6 a day. The work itself involved using a plucking knife and finger and thumb shields (all needed to be purchased at a cost of 8d for the knife and 6-7d per fortnight for the shields and sharpening) to remove the outer fur, leaving the soft, downy fur which lies close to the skin. As you imagine, the resulting explosion of down covered everything and everyone prompting one woman who worked in her living room with her two children to state: ‘we drink plenty of fur with our tea.’[3]

The picture of the women working is a haunting one; they are scantily clothed in rough, sacking like dresses, open, for the most part, at the throat, and letting the flesh appear through various slits and holes. This garment is matted with fluff or down. The women work and eat and sleep in an atmosphere thick with impalpable hairs, tainted with the sickly smell of the skins. Everything round them is coated with fur, and they themselves look scarcely more human than the animals beside them, from the thick deposit of fur which covers them from head to foot and forces its way into the eyes and nose and lungs of the miserable workers.[4]

The fur that had been pulled was then collected and sent back to the factory for use as a stuffing for cushions, pillows and bed covers. It was weighed and, if considered too light, the woman’s wages would be docked – best, I suppose, not to drink too much of the down with the tea.

A survey of 1897 found that infant mortality rates in families where the mothers were fur pullers was much higher than in those of other professions, they understanding being that the children were also inhaling the chemically treated down causing serious chest complaints.   The investigator remarks on the conditions of the workers and their homes were damning; ‘wretched’, ‘miserable’, ‘very unhealthy and bad for the chest’ and ‘filthy’.[5]  The women themselves also commented on how the work seemed to ‘stuff your chest up,’ and how it was, ‘very bad if you have a baby to suckle in the same room,’ and ‘serves chest cruel bad,’ but that they had to do it to support their family – many of the women being married to husbands who were out of work, or working themselves in low paid, seasonal positions.[6]  The investigator, Mrs Hogg, despairingly wrote: ‘without the abolition of fur pulling as a home industry, it is not easy to see what remedial measures could have much effect.’[7]  This, as is noted by Black c1914, is exactly what happened: ‘fur pulling, a trade in which such evils occurred in an aggravated degree… is not now allowed to be carried on at home.’  A triumph for health and women’s working conditions in the fur trade, but what effect did this legislation have on those women who relied on it, even the few pence that they could earn, to feed and clothe their families?

[1]  Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889

[2] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co, 1893), p. 274

[3] F. G. Hogg, Home Industries of Women in London, (London, The Women’s Industrial Council, 1897), p. 27

[4] Hogg, Home Industries, p.19

[5] Hogg, Home Industries, pp. 26-29

[6] Hogg, Home Industries, p. 27

[7] Hogg, Home Industries, p. 19

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