Since prehistoric times humans have used furs for clothing. Traditionally, the prized furs have been sable, marten, and fisher (all of the genus Martes), the related mink and ermine (of the genus Mustela), and the chinchilla, from South America. The coats of the ocelot, the wildcat, the common house cat, the marmot, the nutria, the raccoon, the hare, and the rabbit are less expensive because the animals are numerous and easy to trap. Beaver and seal are prized for their durability, but such furs as squirrel and skunk are valued for their delicacy of texture. Fox furs have also been much esteemed, and the rare wild silver fox and Pribilof blue fox are sought after, although silver fox is now bred on fur farms.
The hunting of wild furs is still an important occupation in wilderness areas, notably in N Canada, Alaska, Mongolia, and Siberia. The finer wild furs come from northerly regions, where because of the climate the animals produce sleeker and better pelts. In the more populated and temperate regions of the world, however, only small pockets of territory retain enough wild animal life to be good for fur hunting. Because of this condition furs have always been luxury goods and were associated early with royalty and nobility (e.g., sable and ermine).
The fur trade has gone on since antiquity, but it reached its apogee in the organized exploitation of the wilderness of North America and Asia from the 17th to the early 19th cent. The staple fur of the great fur-trading days in North America was the beaver, though the fur seal was and is the object of highly lucrative fur hunts.
Many furs are also now grown extensively by fur farming, which has developed into a major industry in the United States and Canada in the 20th cent. The preparation and sale of fur remains a very considerable business. The dressing and dyeing and the matching and cutting of furs to make fine coats and other garments occupy the labors of a great many people concentrated in the few great fur markets of the world.
The depletion of fur-bearing animals was strikingly indicated in the fate of the sea otter on the Northwest Coast. The threat of similar extinction of the fur seal later led to the international quarrel called the Bering Sea Fur-Seal Controversy (see under Bering Sea). Because some fur-bearing animals were in danger of extinction, the U.S. government in 1969 enacted the Endangered Species Act, which bans the importation and sale of pelts of such animals as the polar bear, the jaguar, and the tiger (see endangered species). Since the 1960s the clubbing of baby fur seals has become the focus for considerable concern among the various humane societies of Canada and the United States, and since the 1980s the protests of animal-rights groups led to a decrease in popularity of all furs.
After World War II synthetic fur, a deep-pile fabric closely resembling fur, became popular. George W. Borg was among the first to adapt circular knitting machines to make a pile fabric from synthetic fibers. The machines knit a double layer of fabric leaving free ends of yarn that form a pile as deep as 4 in. (10.2 cm). In 1953 an improved form resembling sheared beaver or mouton was introduced. Later types use different synthetics and are woven as well as knit; they also use cotton backing. Other synthetic furs imitate Persian lamb, seal, ermine, chinchilla, and mink. Since the 1960s synthetic furs have become increasingly popular as a result of their relatively low cost and realistic appearance, greater public awareness of endangered species, and the disappearance of certain furs from the market because of restrictive conservation laws.
See A. Samet, Pictorial Encyclopedia of Furs (rev. ed. 1950); P. C. Phillips and J. W. Smurr, The Fur Trade (2 vol., 1961; repr. 1967); E. Coues, The Fur Bearing Animals of North America (1877, repr. 1970); L. R. Hafen, ed., The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West (10 vol., 1965-72); S. Geary, Fur Trapping in North America (rev. ed. 1985).
In reality, a possible source may have been a simple misunderstanding. A 17th century Scottish immigrant's letter to his relatives referring "furried animals and fish" being plentiful in the New World, followed by a request to procure a specimen of these "furried fish" to which the mischievous Scotsman readily complied by making one up, is often cited. In fact, the "cotton mold" Saprolegnia will sometimes infect fish, causing tufts of fur-like growth to appear on the body. A heavy infection will result in the death of the fish, and as the fungus continues to grow afterwards, dead fish that are largely covered in the white "fur" can occasionally be found washed ashore.
The hoax can be unequivocally documented to go back to at least the 1930s. For example, here's an excerpt from an article in the Pueblo Chieftain dating back to November 15, 1938:
Stuffed and mounted specimens of these fish can be found in a number of museums of curiosities. These are made-up; the Saprolegnia "fur" cannot be preserved by taxidermy, and heavily overgrown fish are usually found only after they have already started to decay.
The fur-bearing trout and people's gullible reaction to it was part of a scene in the French movie Brotherhood of the Wolf. The Fur Bearing Trout also appeared in 2 episodes of the Earthworm Jim TV Series in an episode where Jim went on a roadtrip to find it and save it from Queen Slug-for-a-Butt and another episode where Jim had to stop the anti-fish from eating the great worm spirit.