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Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver
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Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  134 ratings  ·  27 reviews
Finalist for the 2015 Lane Anderson Award and the 2016 Butler Book Prize

Beavers, those icons of industriousness, have been gnawing down trees, building dams, shaping the land, and creating critical habitat in North America for at least a million years. Once one of the continent’s most ubiquitous mammals, they ranged from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Rio Grande
Paperback, 256 pages
Published October 13th 2015 by ECW Press (first published October 1st 2015)
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Average rating 3.94  · 
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More entertaining than you would expect. Extremely well-written, and loaded with funny anecdotes. I would describe it as more of a social history of beavers rather than pure biology, but definitely worth the read, regardless. The author has done her homework here, digging up obscure information about Grey Owl, an Englishman who adopted this moniker after giving up trapping beavers, and took up publicizing them instead. She also attends fur auctions, visits a hat manufacturer, and meets with hydr ...more
Jul 13, 2015 rated it liked it
"Dear American Friends: Up here in Canada we're proud of our beavers. We study them. Write about them. And proudly talk about them.

It's not our fault you have dirty minds.

Love, Your Canadian neighbo u rs."

An interesting book full of beaverish anecdotes, facts, and stories. Their prehistoric ancestors, our relationship with them, how they get made into hats, and why they're important to the environment. And for the more adventurous, there's even a short story about parachuting beavers. I'm not
May 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Visits to beaver-significant places (from remote locations that mimic the pre-European beaver landscape of Canada to a hat factory) and interviews with experts on history, the fur business, hat-making, and ecology.

Less padded than nonfiction normally is, and full of interesting facts: did you know that there was a period when large parts of North America had currency that was not on the gold standard but on the beaver pelt standard? Did you know that beavers are considered a "keystone species"
May 08, 2019 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this more than I did. It seemed kind of formulaic to me with a writer going around visiting people & places and weaving in some history and science among the adventures. It's depressing to read of how North Americans tried to eradicate yet another species. One could read this as a description of capitalism's folly. My favorite parts were about the amazing things beavers do in their ecosystems. I wanted much more of that. Pleasant enough and informative. ...more
Laura Scott
Jan 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016-tbr
This delightful non-fiction book takes us through the history of the beaver, mainly in North America, and the phenomenal impact it has on our environment and landscape. From near decimation during the height of the fur trade to a remarkable rebound, the beaver has played an important role in the shaping of our nation.
The book is really well written and takes what could be a dry subject and makes it engaging. It's written in a style similar to that of Mary Roach (although without the delightful f
Clare O'Beara
I thoroughly enjoyed this book - except one part - in which the author went here, there and everywhere connected with beavers past and present, from a British museum to Canadian network of dams and lodges visible from space. She investigated history - beavers lived at the headwater of just about every river on the North American continent and their ancestors spread across Beringia to Asia and to Europe.

We find out about four million year old gnaw marks on wood, and how beaver lakes created a go
Sep 10, 2016 rated it liked it
I enjoyed the book very much, save one chapter which I found a bit tedious to read (chapter 6), and some of the publisher's editorial decisions (E.g., why cheap out on the photos? Why wouldn't you caption them? They look terrible!). A very interesting discussion in the final chapter of how beavers are "keystone partners" in ecosystem restoration and water conservation initiatives in face of their frequent dismissal as troublesome pests. (I do love me an underdog!)

Maybe the BEST part of this book
Margaret Sankey
Jan 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is terrific popular science in the form of a cultural history of beavers--their alteration of the landscape before human settlement, the symbiotic relationship with early people (who likely learned tree coppicing from seeing willow regrowth and who used already cut wood from beaver dams for fires and building), the appearance of giant beavers in indigenous oral traditions because of seeing fossils, the economic revolution of the Atlantic fur trade, beavers and their ecosystem relationship t ...more
Jul 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
A great read. Who would have thought that a beaver would have such an impact on the environment? before pesky Europeans showed up and very nearly wiped them out the humble beaver was an environmental engineer of the highest order.
Jun 21, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: science-nature
Very interesting. I would warn animal lovers who are squeamish that the hats in the title isn’t there due to a passing observation. While the overall theme is of interconnectedness and a paean to beavers, a good amount of time is spent with trappers, furriers and hat makers.
Jennifer Nightingale
Apr 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
It was both fascinating and a little depressing. Fashions may have changed but our attitudes have not. It does draw us into the cleverness of this little creature that we have treated so very poorly and have so misunderstood.
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
a very entertaining and informative look at the beaver. from the beavers influence on its landscape, its use as hides and the fur trade and its reintroduction in Canada and the US.
Sherri Anderson
Jul 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
I thought this was a great book. It was well written. Fun to read and gave me quite a bit of information in a fun way! Great job!
Sep 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Not quite as compelling as some other one-subject drill downs like Mark Kurlansky's Cod or Mary Roach's Stiff, Backhouse's book is still a fun read about an amazing (and under-appreciated) animal.
Ross Owen
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is a lovely book about beavers. What's not to love?
Jan 10, 2019 marked it as to-read
recommended by Canadian Reader
Sep 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Francis Backhouse writes about beavers and their relationship with man. Valued for their waterproof fur, they were hunted and trapped to a fraction of their prior numbers, and entirely wiped out in some areas. The book is well-organized, beginning with how extensive beavers were and their ancient ancestors. She moves on to the trapping activities and early conservationists who sought to manage beavers in a sustainable manner. Interestingly, she covers how their fur was used to make hats, the cur ...more
Thanks to ECW and the 49th Shelf for providing me with a free copy of Once They Were Hats.

Honestly, my knowledge of beavers was minimal before picking up this book, which is kind of a shameful thing to admit as a Canadian. I knew they built dams, I knew they were crucial to the fur trade, I knew (and kind of wish I didn't) about how they were used in perfume and flavouring. But that was it.

Once They Were Hats delves into the history of beavers -- and how intrinsically linked they are with the hi
Robert Davidson
Jan 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Small and unassuming yet very important to the ecosystem and the exploration of Canada the mighty Beaver makes for an interesting read. The Author goes to a Hat maker in Calgary to see how they still make some very expensive Hats using Beaver fur and then to a Trapper to learn how to skin one with many historical stories about our national symbol. They are making a comeback although they can have annoying habits such as gnawing through fence posts in their spare time. Lastly, fried beavertail is ...more
I won this in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway...thank you! This book was fascinating, and although it was filled with facts, detailed information, and history, it was never dull or boring. I learned so much about beavers, and how important they are to our environment. It's a really great little book and I highly recommend it to readers who are interested in environmental issues, wildlife, Canadian history, or to those who would like to learn a little about the fur industry. There is so much tru ...more
Danielle T
Jul 06, 2016 rated it it was ok
It was ok, but I can't quite put my finger on why I didn't really like it as much as other natural history books. Perhaps it was the first person perspective as the author learned more about beavers? Otherwise, a good overview of the relationship between beavers and people in a historical, fashionable, and ecological way, with a short sidestep into the paleontology of now extinct species.
Jul 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: goodreads-wins
I received this book for free as part of the goodreads first reads giveaway. This book was great, I loved learning about the history of the beaver in North America and how it has rebounded so well after nearly being hunted into extinction. I would recommend this book to fans of natural history and people wanting to learn about beavers.
Jun 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Fascinating history of the Beaver. No, I am not kidding, it's really quite interesting. if you don't have a high tolerance for the fur trade though, it may exceed your squeamishness factor -- not that it glorifies that trade by any means, but the author does really investigate as much as she can about it.
May 14, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: animals, nature, science
Very readable account of the history, rise and fall, and ecological impact of the keystone species: the beaver.
Jan 09, 2016 rated it liked it
Fascinating. A natural history and a history of Canada all rolled into one very readable book.
Don  Kent
Jan 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a fine book that will let you know just about everything you might want to know about the beaver including how it shaped the topography of North America. A good read!
Jan 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
Wow! I really learned a lot about beavers! The strange thing is that in some sections I wished there was even more detail...
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Jan 28, 2016
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Frances Backhouse is a veteran freelance journalist who has written for Audubon, New Scientist, Canadian Geographic and numerous other magazines. Her training and experience as a biologist inform her environmental writing, including her books about owls and woodpeckers. Her other three books reflect her ongoing fascination with Klondike gold rush history.

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