Ben Franklin Marten Cap
Line engraving by A. de St Aubin after C. N. Cochin, Junior, 1777, CC-BY-4.0 courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Ben Franklin’s Fur Cap and Other Headgear

 

To cover his baldplate and keep his head warm, Ben brought a fur cap with him to France.

Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Franklin, states that the cap was made of Marten fur and that Ben obtained the cap when he traveled to Canada in 1776 seeking support for American independence. He left Canada without any assurance of assistance with the war effort, but apparently snagged a snazzy chapeau! Other sources have claimed that his cap was made from a Beaver pelt.

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What do you think based upon the pictures of each animal below…

Marten
An American Marten – source: Wikipedia Commons
Beaver
An American Beaver – source: Wikipedia Commons

and on existing color portraits of Ben?

Color Portrait Ben Franklin Marten Cap
Color Portrait Ben Franklin Marten Cap

I would tend to believe that Marten fur is more likely correct from the looks of it.

Ben wrote to his friend Polly Hewson from Paris in January 1777:

Paris, Jan. 12. 1777.

My dear dear Polley

Figure to yourself an old Man with grey Hair appearing under a Martin Fur Cap, among the Powder’d Heads of Paris. It is this odd Figure that salutes you; with Handfuls of Blessings on you and your dear little ones.

My Love to all that love you, particularly to dear Dolly. I am ever, my dear Friend, Your affectionate

B F.

But who knows? He may have had both one made of Marten fur and another of Beaver – as he is known to have brought several caps with him to France.

It was widely reported at the time of Ben’s arrival in France in 1776 that the fur cap he sported, his abhorrence of wearing a wig, and his informality of dress in general, imparted an impression of a certain humility or rustic charm that the French were not accustomed to seeing in visiting dignitaries.

It has been said that the French women couldn’t resist “petting” his cap. Talk about a great pick-up line: Wouldn’t you like to pet my fur cap, Mademoiselle?

Later on, Ben was reported to wear a white cap – but I could not find any images of him wearing one. It has been suggested that the fur cap was a light beige, however. Reportedly, one Mme. du Deffand wrote in a letter about Franklin’s appearance, taking note of his “white hat”. She wondered if his white hat was a symbol of liberty. Subsequently, white hats were sported by French sympathetic to the American cause. Women’s hairstyles incorporated fur into them.

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