The Mystery of “French-Kid” Gloves: 1858

Specimens of "chicken-skin" gloves to fit in a nut-shell. From this informative page:

Specimens of “chicken-skin” gloves to fit in a nut-shell. From this informative page:


Having so far treated of the nature and habits of the rat, let us now proceed to ascertain the nature of his skin and carcass.

Now my readers may be anxious to know for what purpose the London merchant purchased the six hundred thousand rat-skins in Paris; and for their enlightenment I will tell them. It was to change these skins from the loathsome, detestable things they were, into the most valued of all manufactured articles, because they are coveted by the ladies, and courted by the gentlemen. This may surprise the reader, but I will soon solve the mystery. In the first place, we will take the most beautiful, and at the same time the most dangerous, thing in creation. You will ask what that can be, and my reply is—The fair hand of a which, from the beginning, has made more fools of philosophers and sinners, of saints and sages, than all the temptations in the world besides.

“Now, Sir Charles “(to assume a case), “you had the honour, yesterday morning, of accompanying your betrothed to the mercer’s shop, to procure some little necessaries for the evening ball. Those matters being settled, it then became your part to play the gallant knight; upon which you stoutly demanded to see some ladies’ kid gloves—some of the very best French kid; for nothing less would suit. Down the shopman brought them with a gusto, being very sanguine in their praise, because he considered them an article not to be equalled; at the same time declaring he could fold a pair of them up and place them in a walnut shell. Your lady-love was so delighted, when she beheld them, that two pairs were instantly selected—a primrose pair for the morning wear, and a white pair for the coming evening. That done, you threw down your three half-crowns like a hero, and thought yourself the happiest man alive. But what followed?Why, you no sooner arrived home, than off the lady ran in ecstasies to mamma and papa, and sisters, and servants, and, indeed, any and every one in the house, to show them the dear, delightful present you had made her. Did the matter end there? Certainly not; for you, in the ardour of love, must have the honour of helping to try them on. You did so, and certainly nothing could be more purely white or delicately soft, except the fair hands that wore them! At least, so you thought. Then, with what a dim gaze of frenzy did you look upon the objects of your adoration, and to soothe the agitation of your throbbing heart, you sank as if by magic on one knee, then fervently pressing her hands to your quivering lips you kissed—what?—her hands?—No. French kid gloves?—No. “What then? — Why, rat-skins? Nay, do not start; I say rat-skins, the primitive owners of which used to live by sometimes devouring horse-flesh at Montfaucon, and at others feeding on the veriest filth and garbage in the sewers of Paris; and yet withal, nothing in the wide world can equal rat-skins for beautifying even the fair hands of our most beloved sovereign Queen Victoria.

To me it is a mystery why rat-skins should be at all objectionable for gloves, when, at the same time, the skins of stinking polecats are sewn together and made into long rollypolies for twisting round the fair necks of our ladies, to shield them from the rude attacks of wind and weather, and which rollypolies are commonly known as boas. But to make the armory still more complete, a large round thing is made, somewhat resembling a drum, open at each end, to hide their hands and arms in,—which drum the furriers call a muff; and being covered with the skins of polecats, is pronounced to be fitch of the finest quality. But it is clear that fitch is neither more nor less than polecats’ skins, into which the ladies thrust their delicate hands and arms up to their elbows! and with boas and tippets of the same material muffle up their ears and eyes, to make them warm and comfortable; yet they never dream of stinking polecats.

Then, again, the crowns of kings are rendered soft and easy to their royal brows by being lined and turned up with stoats’ skins; but which stoat-skins are better known to ladies and furriers as ermine. In warmer and more temperate regions, the stoat is of a reddish-brown on the back and sides; and the throat, belly, &c. are white, except the tail, the tip of which is invariably black. But in colder climates, all but the tip of the tail is yellowish-white, and is held in great estimation for its fur. The consequence is, that in the icy regions, vast numbers of the native tribes, as well as foreigners, are in the habit of traversing immense tracts of country, amid ice and snow, for weeks and months together, in quest of these little animals. They are captured by hunting and trapping. Their skins and tails are torn off and dressed, in order to keep the fur sound; and, when properly prepared, they are sewn together with the black tips of the tails sticking out here and there. This is the invaluable ermine which works so many charms and wonders among those teasing little creatures, the fair sex! Still, at the same time, what more delightful or dignified present can any lord make his lady than presenting her with a complete suit of ermine, comprising muff”, cuffs, cape, tippet, boa, and cloak. I know of no present that will give such general and infinite satisfaction; and if any one doubts what I say, let him try the experiment with his wife or betrothed, and see if they do not in return declare him the dearest creature living, and become as loving and affectionate as the comfort and warmth of stoat-skins can make them.

How comes it, then, that polecats’ and stoats’ skins are held so inestimable, while the poor humble rat’s skin is held in detestation, when in texture and softness it is quite equal, if not superior, to either?The reason is obvious. Over the whole surface of our island, from shore to shore, east, west, north, and south, there is scarcely a hole or corner in our homes and farmsteads that is not infested with rats; while the banks of our lakes, rivers, streams, and ditches, are completely drilled and intersected with their subterranean runs and retreats. Here, then, is the objection—they are too common. Still I am satisfied there is no one thing can equal them for ladies’ gloves, where delicacy and softness are the essential requisites to form the beau-ideal of perfection. But my father’s maxim may perhaps better explain the mystery. He always maintained that anything far-fetched and dear-bought was good for the ladies. Nevertheless, in despite of every prejudice, should my readers at any time wish to impress those delicate things, the ladies’ hands, with the pure stamp of elegance, just thrust them into rats’ skins, and the work is complete.

In order that the gentlemen may not laugh at the ladies’ expense, allow me to remind them, that if the ladies wear rats’ skins upon their hands, the gentlemen beautify their heads with rats’ fur, and walk along with as much importance as if they wore the coronets of kings. The “Quarterly Review” informs us that in France, the sewer authorities hold an annual hunting-match, on which occasion there is a great capture of rats. These animals are not destined to afford sport under the tender mercies of a dog “Billy, Jem, or Tiny.” On the contrary, the French have too much respect for the soundness of their hides. Then again, a company has established itself in Paris, on the Hudson’s Bay principle, to buy up all the rats of the country for the sake of their skins. The soft nap of the fur, when dressed, is of the most beautiful texture, far exceeding in delicacy that of the beaver; and the hatters consequently use it as a substitute.

But to carry out my point, Sir Charles, let us turn to the grand ball. Last evening saw you, in the etiquette of fashion, dancing with the rival of your intended. What unconscious cruelty were you then perpetrating upon one who doated on you—upon one who, amid the gorgeous splendour and glittering throng, saw nothing but you—and you dancing with her rival. Fie upon you! With what finished grace you led the hated one to the dance; then how you exerted every nerve to round with ease and elegance your every action, by which you thought you were making rapid strides in the affections of your chosen one; but which display was, in reality, cramping her very heart with jealousy. Talk of etiquette; I believe my good old Yorkshire grandmother’s etiquette, if not- the most fashionable, was at least more natural; she was eighty-two when last at a ball, and she then declared that my grandfather, who was three years older than herself, should never dance with any one but her while she was living; and, what is more, she kept her word, and was proof to the last against all appeals. It may appear quaint or even vulgar in me, but I cannot help thinking she was right, when we see so many miserable consequences arising out of this first familiarity in a ball-room.

Unconscious of all around, there, Sir Charles, sat the idol of your heart, biting the rat-skins till she had laid the ends of her fingers bare. At that moment, sir, she was a perfect little cannibal, and would have bitten you and her rival to pieces with more avidity and less remorse than she did her rat-skin gloves. Presently she quitted the room, and left for you a card, requesting you not, on any account, to call upon her till this evening. Now, sir, I would sooner be fastened in a barn with five hundred rats, were I you, than be locked in a room with this pretty little cannibal. Indeed, sir, I would rather present her with fifty pairs of prepared rat-skins, carcasses and all, than listen for half an hour to one of her reproving sermons. Nevertheless, were I in her place, as a punishment for your thoughtlessness, you should swallow the remainder of the gloves—both pairs I mean— before I would pardon your seeming perfidy.

There was one interesting circumstance, connected with the ball-room, which I have yet to mention. While your little white rose, Sir Charles , was quietly eyeing your every movement, Lady Rattle, in the most courteous and inquisitive manner advanced, and thus addressed her:—”My dear Emily, you are quite the belle and idolized deity of the room. You are turning them all heathens and idolators; for the whole adoration of both sexes is centred upon you. Now, dear, for Heaven’s sake, do undeceive them, or you will be answerable for their eternal loss!” Emily inquired in what she was to undeceive them? “Why,” Lady Rattle replied, “to tell you the truth, love, I am deputed by some of them to ascertain whether you have on gloves of a supernatural quality, or whether it is the exquisite delicacy of your skin which so dazzles and bewilders the whole company; for nothing is either seen or spoken of but your hands, dear.” Emily sedately informed her that she had on gloves which were a present from Sir Charles, and that she believed they were a new kind of French kid. “Dear, dear,” said Lady Rattle, “what a little delicate creature it must have been! Nodoubt it drank nothing but new-milk, and was fed upon cream and almonds. How delicious it must have eaten! Oh, how she should like to have lunched off it! Its flesh must have been as white as a curd. Do you know, love, I’m going to give a superlative treat, and I must insist upon your coming to it. I intend giving a real French kid dinner to all my friends and acquaintances; there’ll be a sensation for you; ’twill be the leading topic of the day; and I shall employ M. Soyer to serve them up. Sir John is going to Paris next week; and to prevent imposition, dear (for there are no real French kids in England), he shall bring over a number with him; and, oh, we will have such a treat, love! For, do you know, dear, that French kid soup, or stewed French kids, impart such a transparent delicacy to the complexion, that nothing on earth can equal it! Oh, heavens! we shall have all the gentlemen dying in love for us. There’ll be a conquest! Well now, dear, I must pray you to let me go, for poor Sir John is languishing for me.” They then parted.

The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, James Rodwell, 1858

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: We have met “Uncle” James Rodwell before, in this account of incidents at a London rat pit. He was the leading expert on the habits of rats. He respected their equal parts of cleverness and destructiveness. The gloves illustrated at the head of the post are “chicken-skin” gloves, perhaps made from unborn calf-skin, but, like “French-kid,” given a more palateable name.


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s