A Brief History of the Fur Muff

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A silk muff from the 1700s.

In my novel, ASTOR PLACE VINTAGE, the story hinges on a journal that is found sewn inside the lining of a fur muff. So it seems only right to present some background about fur muff fashion.

Muffs were mentioned in text from the 1400s, and one of the earliest images of one is in an engraving from 1588. In the 1600s both men and women used muffs. Since fur was not as easily attainable, they were more typically made out of silk or satin and might be elaborately decorated with lace and ribbons.

Madame de Pompadour with fur muff, 1763

People liked muffs because you could hide small things inside them. Ladies sometimes wore lapdogs inside their muffs.

The Hudson Bay Company, a British company founded in 1670, opened up the market for fur muffs. Even middle-class people could now use them to warm their cold hands. Someone might own a few muffs made from different skins. Sable, ermine and grey squirrel were popular with women. Men might use otter, tiger or lynx. The fur was turned inside to soften the skin.

In the late 1700s muffs were really popular and women used them more than men. However, now that they were more easily attainable, they tended to be large and unweildy. Fashion!

The word “muff” has been used to suggestively refer to female genitalia.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary: “warm covering for the hands,” 1590s, from Du. mof “a muff,” shortened from M.Du. moffel “mitten, muff,” from M.Fr. moufle “mitten,” from O.Fr. mofle “thick glove, large mitten, handcuffs” (9c.), from M.L. muffula “a muff,” of unknown origin. In 17c.-18c. also worn by men. Meaning “vulva and pubic hair” is from 1690s; muff-diver “one who performs cunnilingus” is from 1935.

Isabelle Lemmonnier with a Muff by Manet, 1879

In the early 1800s wealthy New Yorker John Jacob Astor financed The Pacific Fur Company, which became the largest American-owned fur trading entity. Astor made lots of money from the fur trade, but he made much more from buying up real estate in Manhattan. He owned lots of land in the area now known as Astor Place, which was named for him after his death in 1848. (And the store in my novel is named for the area.)

Dripping in furs at the turn of the century

By the 1860s, people were into fur coats as status markers. Fur muffs fell out of fashion, mainly because they weren’t necessary if you had warm coat pockets anyway.

Muffs became popular again in the early 20th Century, especially because they could be useful while driving in the open automobiles of the day.

But they never recaptured the popularity of earlier times. The increasing use of handbags as fashion statements contributed to their demise. Women can only carry so many accessories.

During World War II interest in muffs resurged, partially because of the austerity of the times; muffs could be repurposed from old fur coats to add a note of glamour.

Joan Crawford keeping her hands warm

After the war, the use of muffs faded for good. Women now drove, smoked, worked… they’d had enuff of muffs. Hands needed to be handy.