The holidays are nearly here and winter travel is a popular topic, with many people studying long-range weather forecasts, air and train schedules, and perhaps investing in new snow-tires. But no matter how long that trip home may be, odds are it's much easier now than it would have been in the 19th c., when these furry mittens were first worn.
They're made from buffalo leather and likely buffalo hide (the museum that owns them isn't quite certain about the fur/hair, but it does look the same as the popular shaggy buffalo coats and robes from the same era), and they would have qualified as serious cold-weather wear. Mittens are always warmer than gloves because the fingers are kept together. But there's a definite trade-off between warmth and dexterity, as anyone who has tried to do much of anything wearing mittens can attest.
But I'm guessing these mittens had a specific purpose. Stage, coach, and sleigh drivers were a hardy breed. The position required skill with horses, knowledge of the roads, and the necessary strength to drive and control a team of horses in all weather and on all kinds of roads. Driving in winter weather must have been especially cruel. The painting, right, shows the English Dover to London coach laboring through a snow storm, while the one, lower left, features a pair of Canadian sleighs, one having driven the other off the road.
North American drivers often wore long, gauntlet-style mittens like these for extreme weather. The extended cuffs stretched over the sleeves driver's coat, protecting his hands and forearms from driving snow and wind, while the leather palms could securely hold the reins. The mittens would have to have been removed to make any adjustments to the harnesses, but during a long, cold drive, they must have offered a welcome warmth - and probably made quite the style-statement at stage posts and inn yards.
I spotted these mittens on the The Clothing Project, a tumblr devoted to the clothing collections of the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers' Museum. Many unusual American pieces here, and worth checking out!
Top left: Men's Mittens, 19th c., Bison Hide & Fur, Farmers' Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Photo by The Clothing Project.
Right: London to Dover Coach, Winter, by Henry Alken, private collection.
Lower left: Run Off the Road in a Blizzard, by Cornelius Krieghoff, c 1850, Art Gallery of Ontario.