A bearskin is a tall fur cap worn as ceremonial headgear of grenadiers.  The standard bearskin of the British Foot Guards is 18 inches tall, weighs 1.5 pounds, and is made from the fur of the Canadian black bear. An officer’s bearskin is made from the fur of the Canadian brown bear as the female brown bear has thicker, fuller fur, and is dyed black.  The skin of an entire bear is typically needed to make ONE hat.

The irony is that these caps, while made at least currently of the fur of Canadian brown bears, are actually of a French origin and while we commonly associate the bearskin with historic regiments of England, ceremonial guards of many countries wear bearskin caps. The origins of the bearskin cap go back to the seventeenth century New France (aka Canada).

The original grenadier units, who actually were charged with throwing small bombs (grenades) wore cloth caps that were trimmed with fur. Over time the caps evolved, and by the end of the eighteenth century, the grenadiers in the armies of France, Spain and Great Britain were wearing tall fur hats, adorned with front plates. These appeared to increase the height of the soldiers making them seem more imposing.  Of course, it wasn’t just the actual grenadier companies who wore the bearskins.  The Grenadier Guard is actually a regiment of foot (infantry) and not limited merely to grenadiers.

The original version of bearskin caps for the grenadiers was reported to have been twelve inches in height and made of black-brown fur. On the front was a triangular brass plate, bearing the King’s arms and the regimental title. Under the plate was a small leather peak, which was always hidden by the long fur. This pattern increased in height by the 1820s to be about sixteen inches in height, and still maintaining a small front peak along with the brass plate at the front. 

There’s some evidence that the bearskin hats weren’t actually worn in combat (or while doing regular soldier work). They were ceremonial and almost exclusively worn on the parade ground. Furthermore, bearskin caps were inordinately expensive and generally the property of the regimental commander who would want to protect his investment should the battle not proceed as planned. Grenadiers would join the battle in either leather helmets called shakos (also a French invention?!) or the same tricorn hats as the Regulars.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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