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Forgotten Furs: Collections Care Strategies for Fur Garments in the Maryland Historical Society's Fashion Archives

Fur fashions seem to transcend time and space. They have appeared in numerous cultures across the world throughout the last few thousand years for both functional and aesthetic reasons. While the 1980s and 1990s saw a decline in the desire for fur coats that required the inhumane treatment of animals for their creation and consumption, their use has a long and multi-faceted history which cannot, and should not, be overlooked. [1] From indigenous groups in the Americas to British royalty, the pelts of different animals have come to symbolize power, spirituality, and much more over the course of thousands of years. In addition to their availability on the consumer market, fur garments also exist today in historic costume collections, and while fur indeed has a rich social history, it is just as important to understand the science behind them as well. From trims to tippets to entire coats, fur definitely has a strong presence in the Fashion Archives at the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS), all of which possess unique preservation and conservation needs within the museum space. This paper, therefore, considers the threats specific to fur garments in historic costume collections and recommends collections care strategies for nineteenth and twentieth century furs in the Maryland Historical Society’s Fashion Archives.


Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. William S. Hilles, 1976.14.7, Ermine fur throw with tails and handmade lace, lined with silk satin, 1920. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Before one can understand the differing preservation needs of fur-containing garments, it is imperative to establish the physical and chemical makeup of the material itself. Where there is hair, there is also skin and, in the case of taxidermy objects in costumes, claws, which also must be understood in order to provide the best possible care for these types of garments. All fur, regardless of the animal from which it comes, is comprised of the polymerized protein keratin. [2] Hair is also made up of lipids, proteins, and melanin pigments. [3] While all mammal skin differs slightly in appearance and performance from species to species, the material is always comprised of a “network” of microscopic “fibers” of the “long-chained protein called collagen.” [2] Whereas cotton and linen are cellulosic, as they are plant-based fibers, skin and fur are proteinaceous, which gives them different properties that affect their processes of deterioration. [4] Hair and fur follicles originate in the subcutaneous layer of the skin, protruding through its surface in multiple layers and types. [4] The fur mat is generally comprised of outer “guard hairs” which provide protection to the skin from external threats and moisture, and a shorter, denser “down fur” which keeps the animal warm. [5] Individual fur hair itself is composed of the medulla at the center, surrounded by the cortex, and then the outer cuticle. [5]

Diagram showing the composition of a fur fiber from a muskrat.


Diagram showing the layers of the fur mat of a live polar bear.



The type of fur that is used in a garment depends upon a variety of factors: the geographic area and time period in which the garment was made, whether the fur is meant to be decorative or functional, the color and texture of the fur, and more. While different furs often behave similarly, it is important to be able to identify the type present on any specific garment because they may react differently to agents of deterioration, such as ultraviolet radiation, water damage, and others. In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western fashions, wool, mink, sable, seal, fox, rabbit, and ermine were among the most popular animal furs to be used in clothing, but other animals, such as skunks, bears, and beavers were often used as well. [1] Ermine, fox, rabbit, seal, and more all have a presence in the MdHS Fashion Archives, so it is imperative to recognize the similarities and differences between these materials in order to be able to identify and care for them to the best of the institution’s abilities. 

When provenance and associated information about the time period and geographical area in which they were made is not available, furs can be identified by a few key criteria through visual observation and methods of testing. Color, hair length and diameter, appearance, texture and scales, and more can be assessed both with the naked eye and with a microscope to identify the animal from which a fur originated. [6] The Alaska Fur ID Project is an online database of furs which features microscopy images and descriptions of the fur which match the aforementioned criteria to aid in the identification process. [6]

Northern Fur Seal #3 – Guard Hair, 200x, Transmitted ASM. Alaska Fur ID Project.

Like all other museum objects, fur garments are also susceptible to the nine agents of deterioration, which include improper temperature and relative humidity levels, light damage, water damage, pests, and more. [7] In order to understand the specific preservation needs of these objects, the biggest internal and external threats to their longevity must first be established. The term inherent vice describes the natural processes by which an object degrades over time unrelated to outside influences. Loss of flexibility, vulnerability to dry rot, oxidation, and color change are all a part of the natural degradation process of skins and furs. [8] The use of fur in fashion often includes the skin of the animal, and sometimes even other parts or even a whole taxidermied animal as well. The differences in preparation and degradation of these extra materials: skeletal, meaning bone, teeth and ivory, and other, meaning lipids, glass eyes, and padding, all contribute to the additional unique preservation needs of objects such as fox stoles and ermine tail throws. While damages and changes caused by inherent vice can not be entirely prevented, minimizing external threats, maintaining the proper climate, and using archival materials for storage and display of fur garments can slow down these effects and promote their longevity.

Heat causes things to expand, while cold causes them to contract. In organic artifacts, excessively warm temperature levels can exacerbate the effects of the natural degradation process and can cause an object to warp. [7] Low temperature levels can result in embrittlement. [7] Arguably worse for museum objects, however, is excessive fluctuations in temperature. [7] Skin is elastic and pliable and made to move around, but once the skin is removed from its body and processed via tanning, it no longer behaves like a live organ. Subsequently, fluctuations in temperature can cause skin to warp and crack. Incorrect relative humidity (RH) levels can cause a variety of problems for almost any museum object, but skins and furs have their own unique reactions to excessively moist or dry climates. If the RH in a storage room exceeds 65%, fur is at risk for developing mold, which can spread to other garments in the collection and cause staining, infestation, and a host of other related problems. [7] RH levels below 40% can cause skin and fur to lose its moisture, causing dryness and embrittlement of both materials, which can in turn result in physical damages to the objects, such as tears in the skin as well as breakage and loss of fur strands. [7] Furthermore, the link between temperature and RH levels must be recognized. Every shift of 5.4℉ relates to a 10% shift in RH, which is why it is important for any museum object to be kept in a stable, monitored climate. [7] Lastly, it should be noted that incorrect temperature and RH pose a greater threat to skins and furs which are already in poor condition. Thusly, the ideal climate for storing zoological fashions is a constant temperature in the 45-65℉ range, with a relative humidity between 40 and 60 percent. [7] Furs generally prefer a colder climate than textiles, and while cold storage around 45℉ is optimal, it is not necessary as not all institutions have the resources to provide that kind of climate. The collections areas in the museum stay at a constant temperature of 70℉, plus or minus three degrees, because the building houses mixed collections.

A data logger on the first floor of the MdHS depicting a temperature of 69.30℉ and 50.6% RH.

Like most other organic materials, fur is susceptible to visible chemical changes due to light exposure, called photooxidation. [3] As earlier established, furs derive their color from the types and amount of melanin in their cortexes. [3] A 2016 study from the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections used Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) and colorimetry to measure chemical changes to fur based on exposure to simulated window-filtered natural light and visible light without Ultraviolet wavelengths. [3] The study found that light containing UV causes both the bleaching and yellowing of hair fibers, whereas visible light with UV filtered out causes only yellowing. [3] Darker furs are less susceptible to photooxidation than lighter ones, and furs that inherently have yellow pigmentation are prone to the creation of more yellowing degradation by-products, such as pheomelanin, than others. [3] Reddening of fur can also occur as a process of degradation, but it is not always the result of photooxidation as it occurs even in dark storage. [3] The same study also tested changes in the tensile strength, or the amount of force it takes to break horsehair before and after light exposure to determine whether or not light can cause mechanical damage to furs. [3] It was found that light exposure did result in some mechanical damage and loss of tensile strength in fur. [3] While previous studies have found that some furs can exhibit discoloration over time even in the absence of visible and UV light, dark storage is still the optimal storage condition for fur garments. [3] When dark storage is not possible at an institution, enclosed storage and UV-filtered lights will suffice.

While carpet beetles are among the largest of concerns for any costume and textile collection, furs also attract these pests as well as moths because they are proteinaceous and their fats and keratin are attractive to bugs and other pests. [2] Often, their casings will be left on furs and other costumes, showing that the garment was infested in the past. [2] Zoological fashions can also attract rodents, like rats and mice, which are attracted to their skins and padding. [2]

Varied Carpet Beetle Larvae. Jim Kalisch, University of Nebraska Department of Entomology.

Signs of pest infestation on furs include grazed surfaces, hair loss, and frass, otherwise known as animal droppings. [2] Soil and dust on furs are an extra risk factor towards pest infestation because dust, which often includes human hair and skin particles, is particularly attractive to bugs. [2] In order to prevent infestation, fur garments should be dusted and enclosed in archival plastic bags in long-term storage to protect them from accumulating further dust and other pollutants. [2] Collections areas should be dusted regularly and implement integrated pest management (IPM) strategies. [2]

Now that the threats and preservation needs of skins and furs have been established, their position in the MdHS Fashion Archives can be assessed. The institution has already implemented IPM and climate monitoring strategies and already has the resources in place to ensure the proper care of furs and garments in their collections. Due to the nature of this internship in rediscovering and rehousing costume from the Fashion Archives, and because of the unique preservation needs of skin and fur, it is important to establish optimal care strategies for these garments in the present.

Until this summer, much of the fur garments and accessories that exist in this collection were individually stored in plastic bags in a metal box on the third floor the historic Pratt House, which does not provide optimal storage conditions for objects because its temperature and humidity are not regulated and there is evidence of pests in the space. I removed these objects from Pratt House, quarantined them in the freezer for two days, and after acclimatization, brought them to Bohannon to survey their condition, process, and rehouse them with archival-grade materials. Despite their previous non-ideal storage, the furs are in relatively good condition and showed no major signs of infestation, although some carpet beetle casings were present on some of the garments. However, in order to keep them in good structural condition, it is important to handle and store them properly for long-term storage in ways that will minimize the effects of their inherent vice. 

While there are numerous threats to the wellbeing of an object in a museum collection, sometimes the objects themselves can be dangerous as well. Historically, taxidermy was prepared with arsenic as a method of warding off pests. [9] Unfortunately, arsenic is dangerous to humans as well as pests and can be an irritant to skin and lungs via inhalation. [9] Zoological fashions which contain taxidermied animals or animal parts should always be handled with gloves if it is unknown whether or not it contains arsenic. [2] Additionally, furs may have been previously treated with harmful pesticides such as DDT, so care should be taken and personal protective equipment (PPE), such as disposable gloves, aprons, and particle-filtered face masks should always be worn when handling these types of objects. [2] Arsenic appears as a white or silver colored powder, which can be seen in the fur or on the skin surface of taxidermied animals or pelts, and can be further identified via visual inspection, researching the history of the object in the museum records, or using portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) if available. [9]

Before an object can be mounted, first an understanding of its proper handling, moving, and care requirements should be established. The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) recommends ensuring support to a large or heavy pelt during moving by placing the object on a flat, rigid board covered with a non-abrasive archival material, such as Mylar or polyethylene foam. [2] Because animal skins, and subsequently fur garments, are subject to fur loss, they should be handled as minimally as possible to prevent this often irreparable damage. [2] While most garment cleaning at MdHS is performed using a HEPA-filtered vacuum with low suction, the CCI recommends dusting furs with a soft brush in the same direction as the natural grain of the fibers, collecting the debris with a vacuum, every six months if they are stored in the open, and only if they are known to be pesticide-free. [2]

Once the objects have been surveyed and cleaned, they are ready to be rehoused. Through research and trial-and-error, the following case studies represent models for the storage of different types of fur garments and accessories that exist in the Fashion Archives collection.

Proper handling and moving techniques being used on a fur muff.

Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. William S. Hilles, 1976.14.3, Australian opossum fur muff, ca. 1900.

Photo Credit: Emily McCort

Proper cleaning techniques being used on a fur muff.

Photo Credit: Emily McCort

Before rehousing the found furs, I looked up their accession numbers in the donor files to gain a deeper understanding of their age and provenance and found that the bulk of them had been donated by Mrs. William S. Hilles, née Bessie Beale Wilson. Mrs. Hilles was a prominent donor to the MdHS collections, having given a wide variety of objects to the institution over the course of decades including not only garments, but silver, documents, and other museum artifacts as well. Many of the furs date to the early- to mid-twentieth century and have been invaluable to my research by giving me the opportunity to apply my findings directly to historic fashions in a museum setting.

Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Mary C.W. Loux, 1992.55: Woman’s black sealskin muff, 1900-1920. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

After processing and cleaning, this black fur muff, which is listed in the donor files as being potentially made from seal, was ready to be rehoused, but because there is fur on all sides of the object, it could not simply be placed in a box. Emily Bach and I decided that a suspension mount would prevent pressure from being placed on any side for too long, which could flatten the fur and even cause fur loss. I created a roll using a tube of ethafoam, cotton batting, and Tyvek, and then pulled it through the muff. Then, I made two stands out of blue board with a notch in the middle for the roll to fit into, making sure that they were tall enough to suspend the mount over the surface beneath. The suspended muff, however, was too tall to fit into any of the garment boxes we had on hand, so I created a custom box out of blueboard, making sure to label the box with the accessory’s accession number. The muff also had a plastic tortoiseshell handle which had degraded to the point of shattering, so the pieces of the handle were put in the box in an archival polyethylene bag with an accession number label to prevent dissociation.

Suspension mount and custom housing for 1992.55.

While the suspension mount worked well for the fur muff, that type of mount does not work for every kind of fur garment and accessory. A Northern Fur seal skin coat was found in an acidic cardboard box and does not have an accession number. However, the garment was still processed, brushed to remove dust and debris from between the fur fibers, and needed to be rehoused. Ordinarily, fur coats would be covered with archival plastic and would be stored on a padded hanger, having no direct contact with other garments around it, but the proper right shoulder seam on this sealskin coat had burst, putting the sleeve in danger of detachment. Due to this structural instability, the coat could not hang vertically, as the pressure of the hanger in addition to the effects of gravity on a broken seam could lead to total detachment of the sleeve. 

Maryland Historical Society, No Acc. #: Late 20th-century Northern Fur sealskin coat. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Emily Bach and I therefore decided that the coat should be lightly padded with acid-free tissue paper and stored flat in a garment box with a padded bottom. While direct contact of the fur to a flat surface is less than ideal, the garment’s poor structural integrity necessitated this type of storage. No other objects are to be stored on top of this garment in its box and the cotton batting covered with tyvek will provide some protection from fur matting by decreasing the rigidity of the surface on which the coat is stored. As with every other garment which is placed in flat storage in the Fashion Archive, this garment was placed on tyvek slings which minimize the amount of direct handling necessary to remove and place them in their respective boxes.

Placing the coat into a padded garment box with its Tyvek sling. Photo Credit: AnnaLivia McCarthy

The unique preservation needs of furs and zoological fashions present challenges in the process of preparing mounts for long-term storage. This 1920-30 silver fox stole was also placed in flat storage in a padded box, despite having fur on both sides of the garment, because it was determined that hanging could stretch or tear the accessory over time, especially because of its uneven weight distribution.


Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. William S. Hilles, 1976.14.6: Woman’s silver fox stole, 1920-1930. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Like the seal skin coat, this object should not have any garments stored on top of it which could cause flattening of the fur and disrupt the padding of the different animal components. This stole is in relatively good structural condition, however it is exhibiting signs of dry rot on the paws and around the mouth. Its identity as a composite object containing materials such as skin, fur, claws, faux eyes, padding, silk ribbon, and metal hooks exacerbates its inherent vice and further limits its preservation. The box was padded with custom cavity cut cotton batting covered with tyvek to prevent the garment from moving freely within the box. As it stands, the box is to be handled carefully and as sparingly as possible.

Placing the silver fox stole in a custom cavity-cut padded garment box. Photo Credit: AnnaLivia McCarthy

While there are best practices known in the field regarding the treatment, storage, handling, and preservation of furs and zoological fashions in historic costume collections, it is important to note that those best practices are subject to change based upon institutional policies and the availability of resources. Furthermore, it may not always be possible to provide optimal storage conditions to fur garments due to their unique and multi-faceted preservation needs. Because zoological fashions are composite objects by nature, their care and preservation requires a more interdisciplinary approach, and so through research, collaborating with and learning from other museums and their practices, and close examination and documentation of the condition of furs in the collection, the MdHS Fashion Archives certainly has the resources to provide the best care possible to historic fur fashions.



[1] Emberley, Julia V. The Cultural Politics of Fur. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1997.

[2] Stone, Tom. “Care of Mounted Specimens and Pelts – Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 8/3.” Revised by Carole Dignard, 2015. Originally published 1988. Canadian Conservation Institute. Last edited November 20, 2017.

[3] Rogge, Corina E., and Anya Shullman. “The Effects of Ultraviolet and Visible Light on Common Furs: Color Changes, Photooxidation and the Use of Tinuvin 292 as a Photoprotectant.” 2016. Collection Forum, vol. 30, issue 1. Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. DOI: 10.14351/2015.08.12 

[4] “Saving Your Treasures: Animal Materials – Skin & Leather.” Video. Nebraska State Historical Society, Gerald Ford Conservation Center. Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission. January 01, 1970. Electronically published June 23, 2005.

[5] Carrlee, Ellen. “Alaska State Museum Bulletin 45.” Alaska State Museum Bulletin 45. October 20, 2011.

[6] Carrlee, Ellen. “Alaska Fur ID Project.” Alaska Fur ID Project. February 22, 2010.

[7] Dignard, Carole, and Janet Mason. “Preventive Conservation Guidelines for Collections.” Canadian Conservation Institute. Last edited December 14, 2018.

[8] “Saving Your Treasures: Animal Materials – Hair, Hooves etc.” Video. Nebraska State Historical Society, Gerald Ford Conservation Center. Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission. January 01, 1970. Electronically published June 23, 2005.

[9] “Residual Pesticides.” American Museum of Natural History.