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Beaver Hat, Rolex of Its Day, Kept Pilgrims Going: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "Making Haste From Babylon: The Pilgrims and Their World History." The book is the latest by author and historian Nick Bunker. Source: Knopf via Bloomberg

When Prince Charles wanted to play tennis in 1618 he ordered a suit of green and light-blue satin, lined with taffeta and covered with ribbons, lace and 72 silver buttons. That same year the elegant young royal bought 64 beaver hats adorned with metallic bands and rich plumage, creating a fashion craze for the Rolex of its day.

The Mayflower pilgrims fled religious oppression and what they saw as the worship of sinful luxury. Now they were struggling in the New World, heavily in debt to backers in Europe, with money for necessities in short supply. Luckily for them, the beaver was plentiful in Massachusetts and Maine, so the entrepreneurial pilgrims seized the opportunity to establish a thriving fur trade.

During the 1620s the price of a single beaver pelt jumped fourfold to nearly 40 shillings, enough to rent 9 acres of farmland in England for a year. During one especially good season, the pilgrims exported 2,000 beaver pelts to be made into hats. The colony founded on virtue was saved from extinction by the Old World’s craving for luxury.

I spoke with Nick Bunker, author of “Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World” (Knopf), on the following topics:

1. Pests to King James

2. Radical Pilgrims

3. A Wealth of Beaver

4. Selling the Settlement

5. The Colony Makes a Profit

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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