Why a Bearskin Rug?

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson have a bearskin rug in front of the fireplace. Anyone care to speculate on this? Would not a bearskin rug be unusual in Victorian England? Were (are) there bears in Great Britain?

On a separate note, Buttons has it on first authority that Vamberry Wine Merchant bottled the First Edition A Study In Scarlet today. He reports that it is something a bit special in a red wine. A case is being sent to Dr Watson for “medicinal purposes.” www.221bcellars.com.

And, now, back to the bear…

16 Replies to “Why a Bearskin Rug?”

  1. Those with the means often went on hunting trips, to Africa for big game, perhaps to the Black Forest or other such places for bears. The resulting heads or skins were often considered decorative, especially in the billiards room or even the entry hall of a large house.

    Holmes and Watson do not live in such a place, of course, but perhaps the bearskin was a gift from a grateful client before Watson’s time, or perhaps Mrs. Hudson picked it up second hand as an appropriate furnishing for bachelor establishment.

    Although bears were extinct in England in Holmes and Watson’s time, bears had been imported for bear-baiting and for dancing bear acts, and by the waste no, want not principle, no doubt the skins were tanned and sold as rugs.

  2. Of course, we need to remember that in Victorian times species were hunted to the verge of extinction in the mistaken belief of Nature’s boundless bounty. Polar bear skins were part of the haul on Doyle’s own arctic voyage (see “Dangerous Work”). With an expanding middle class in an Industrial Age with money to spend on luxury goods and the technology to get it from any corner of the globe, animals were just another commodity to harvest for profit. Doyle wrote in “The Glamour of the Arctic” about whaling: “What could it guess, poor creature, of laws of supply and demand, or how could it imagine that when Nature placed an elastic filter inside its mount, and when man discovered that the plates of which it was composed were the most pliable ant yet durable thing in creation, its death-warrant was signed.” Bear and tiger skin rugs just another status good that signaled one’s place in the middle class and intimated one’s prowess over Nature, even if the closest one one got to wild beasts was the zoo.

    1. Thank you, “Pippin” for these excellent further comments.

      I find it interesting that, of all the furnishings in the rooms, the only mention of an item of Nature is the bearskin. All other items in the “inventory” are manufactured, or is my memory faulty?

      1. Wouldn’t a basket chair be made out of cane, a natural material? And if Holmes affixed his mail to the mantle with a jack knife, it had to be made out of wood. Of course both of these were changed in some way, but so was the bear skin, which had to be at least tanned and treated so that it would remain supple.

  3. As far as it goes, I would say you’re correct about about the bearskin rug in Baker Street. However, many everyday items were manufactured in whole or part from animals; sealskin tobacco-pouches (BLAC, SILV) were used by others–we may assume the same for Holmes and Watson; PC Rance had a horsehair sofa (STUD); Leather Items–shoes, bags, chairs and gloves–are all over the Canon and we may assume ownership of some of these by the pair; feathers were common accoutrements of fashion worn by some visitors to Baker Street, as well as (unmentioned by Watson, though no doubt appreciated by him) corsets, the boning (stays or ribs) of which were made of whale bone. Corsets were worn by both sexes. Could Holmes have had a corset in the wardrobe that contained his disguises? Oil lamps could have possibly used whale oil, as could soaps and margarine although kerosene (lamps) and vegetable oil (soaps and margarine) eventually replaced it. Tallow candles were used by Henry Baker and John Straker. Tallow is a rendered form of beef or mutton fat. And Whitaker’s Almanac lists `pigs’-bristles’, which were used in brushes, including toothbrushes, which we know Holmes owned (SPEC). There are other items in Baker Street that share an animal kinship with the rug, I’m sure, that escape me. I’m enclosing a link to very nice illustration of the layout of 221B. http://www.stutler.cc/other/misc/baker_street.html

    1. Thank you once again for a very thoughtful and detailed expansion on the topic.

      1. Would not this make an interesting paper for the journal? “Natural and man-made furnishings in the various rooms of the Canon.”

  4. I tried to limit myself to those items like the bearskin rug that were originally from the animal kingdom. If I included plants, then the list would include most of the furniture, molding, books and papers, even the coal in the scuttle! I could even bring up the cold meats left on the sideboard by Mrs. Hudson. I wanted to highlight how common it was to exploit animals for commercial mass-market use and Holmes and Watson having a bearskin rug would not be unusual, and in fact a common purchase for Victorian Londoners notwithstanding the fact of England being bear-poor. There were homes visited by the pair that may have had elephant leg umbrella stands, clients with a lucky rabbit’s-foot in their pocket, or a rabbit-skin cap with hanging lappets, as worn by Thaddeus Sholto. We cannot feel superior to the Victorians in this regard, despite advances in the use of synthetic materials and conservation practices.

    1. This begins to take on a very interesting shape… things Victorian versus things today… What would the rooms look like today compared to then? I continue to sense a very interesting article here….

      1. Of course, the rug was a practical, manly black or brown bearskin which would not show stains easily. As opposed to the polar bear rug in Teddy Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, which was placed in his wife’s parlor, and was the only stuffed animal she would allow in her part of the house.

  5. And perhaps it was a gift from Toby’s master Old Sherman, who was a taxidermist as well as a dealer in exotic animals.

    1. Very good thought indeed! As a dealer in exotic animals, he would be one who brought in bears for various acts. No doubt the heads or skins of deceased bears were prepared for sale as ornaments or rugs, thus enriching both Sherman and the owners of the animals.

  6. A few additions to Pippin’s excellent list of animal-based products in Baker Street (with help from my wife Linda): Holmes’s violin would have had some gut strings (they were actually not cat gut, but made from sheep intestines), and his bow would have been strung with horse hair; he and Watson probably had badger bristle shaving brushes; the carpets and much of their clothing were wool; there would have been items of ivory and bone, such as buttons, a paper knife, ruler, and tableware handles; a quill pen nib or two; their desk set had a shaker for ink dryer, which could be ground cuttlefish bone instead of sand; Mrs. Hudson would have had some hide glue and a feather duster; Watson likely had Cantharides (aka Spanish fly) in his medical stores; and he with experience of women on three separate continents probably had some animal skin condoms in his sock drawer.

  7. This has been our most successful Quiz topic to date. In just three days, YOU have uncovered so much new information on a topic that has never been explored before that we have the makings of a solid scholarly paper (if not a book) for Watsonians of the future. Now, who will write it all up?

    Good Job, Fellow Watsonians!

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