Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada
Fur Pressing and Packaging for Transport
Most of the furs traded by the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company were relatively light and of high value. But they presented serious shipping problems. First of all, there was a preservation issue in transporting furs. As could be expected with natural, organic materials, they were subject to deterioration and decomposition, especially if they got wet or attracted insects and small animals. Given that they had to be transported by canoe or York boats, keeping furs dry was a serious challenge. Only if furs were protected could they reach their ultimate value on London or Montreal markets.
Furs were also a bulky and ungainly product to ship. Bundling the furs together into some space saving, easily transportable form was an essential part of trading operations. Individual furs could hardly be carried across portages, and a pile of beaver pelts in the bottom of a canoe would soon fill it – long before the weight of pelts reached the carrying capacity of the canoe.
Animals stay warm because their fur is designed to trap air against their skins. Any unpressed pelt, then, actually consists of a significant volume of air. Fur presses use compression to reduce this air space and thereby significantly reduce the volume-to-weight ratio of furs. Fur presses also create standard shape and size “packs” which are far easier to mark, count, pack and transport on canoes or York boats. The compact, covered bales protect the inside furs from water and pests.
Packs of furs typically contained more than one type of furs. The idea was to avoid bundling all marten pelts or muskrats together, for instance, but rather to make up packs in more or less regular sizes and weights. Distributing the most valuable furs amongst a number of packs was also a consideration, as it would guard against the heavy loss of an extra-valuable pack disappeared along the way. No two packs were necessarily the same, but surviving company records suggest that a single pack might contain about 40 large and 20 small or cub beaver. Similarly, a pack could contain 8 large and 4 small bears; or 60 lynx with 2 beaver pelts to act as covers; or 50 foxes with 2 beaver pelts as covers. The usual pack for buffalo robes contained 10 robes – depending of course upon the size and weight of the robes. In most cases the pack was expected to weigh roughly 90 lb. or a little over 40 kg.
Fur Press Types
There were three distinct types of fur presses used in the fur trade: wedge presses, lever presses and screw presses. All employed some type of mechanical advantage to compress furs and bundle them into standardized shapes, sizes and package weights. The usual weight for a fur pack was about 40 kg. (or 90 lb.), although this was only intended as a average weight. Individual packs could be somewhat lighter or heavier depending upon the number and types of furs included in the pack.
The Wedge Press
The wedge press was perhaps the simplest and most common type of press used in the fur trade. Typically, a wedge press consisted of two heavy upright timbers sunk into the ground or attached to a heavy base. Between the upright timbers sat a large block of wood, which served as the floor upon which furs were laid for pressing. A second heavy top block was also part of the device. Planks of wood were then laid on top of the top block loosely filling the space up to a stout top crosspiece. To press the furs, men drove wooden wedges with mauls or hammers into the spaces between the planks. This pushed the top block down and compressed the pack of furs. Often the top and bottom blocks were grooved to allow space for ropes or leather thongs to be put in place before the furs were pressed. Heavy cloth or large and less valuable furs (leather side out) were put in place to act as a protective covering for the pack before it was pressed. Once pressed, the rope or thongs were tied off making a pack roughly the length and width of the bottom block.
The Lever Press
This type of press was also relatively simple and common at fur trade sites. It required no sophisticated equipment or construction knowledge to build. Large lever presses appear to have been often used to press buffalo robes since the size of these robes made them difficult to handle in a regular fur press. Smaller lever presses were, however, also effective for making fur packs.
Wedge presses relied on the pressure exerted by wedges, which are inclined planes. Lever presses used another “simple machine” concept – the lever. To operate a lever press two or more men held the lever pole up while robes or furs were placed between cover skins or a heavy cloth. Usually this was done in a wooden crib structure with a solid base. Once again leather thongs or ropes would be put in place before the pack was pressed to tie the compressed bundle of furs – or robes – together. Once everything was in place, the men pulled down on the lever to compact the furs. More sophisticated lever presses might use pulleys to raise the heavy lever, but the principle remained the same.
The Screw Press
This type of press also took advantage of another type of inclined plane – the screw – to make packs. Screw presses were usually only found at large posts such as York Factory or Upper Fort Garry, because they were technologically more complex and they required the importation of large iron screws and screw collars. In the later 19th and 20th centuries this type of fur press became more common. They were very efficient and were used in other industries as well - to press apples for cider and grapes for wine, for example.
In a screw press, a long length of iron screw (perhaps 5 feet or so) was attached through a collar to a stout frame much like a wedge press. A large plate was attached to the bottom of the screw and, at the top, a turning bar was attached. As you turned the top bar, the plate was pressed onto the pile of furs - much like pressing a cork screw into a wine bottle.
Fur Presses at Rocky Mountain House
Surviving post journals indicate that in spring, shortly before the canoes and boats left with the year’s trade for Fort Edmonton, the men at Rocky Mountain House spent several days making packs of furs and robes. This was an important part of post operations. It is quite unlikely that there would have been a screw press at Rocky Mountain House, but there is archaeological evidence for a wedge press at the Acton House/Rocky Mountain House site. The remains of this press were uncovered during an archaeological dig in the 1960s.
Lever presses may also have been used at Rocky Mountain House, but because of the nature of their construction, which does not really require extensive footings, they are less likely to leave an archaeological trace.
For Further Information:
“Robe and Fur Presses,” by Charles Hanson Jr. in Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, vol. 3, no.2, Summer 1967.