The Eel Abroad, Part 2

Spearing Eels, Winslow Homer

In this penultimate posting in our series on eel, we make a sharp departure from the foci of this blog–Japanese drinks and, to a lesser extent, food pairings for those beverages. All will be made clear in the final entry.

The Dictionary of Historical Slang has an entry for the noun “eel-skin(s),” which is defined as “very tight trousers” or ”a very tight dress.”1 This term and its two definitions are dated to the 19th century and beg the question—not answered by the lexicographers—as to whether the term was coined to describe a tight-fitting garment made from any material—the polar opposite of saggy pants, for instance—or simply a straightforward labeling of the material used to produce the item of clothing; i.e., the skin of the eel. We are not going to resolve this question here but strongly suspect that it refers to both. A simple search on your favorite search-engine should bring up a number of sites selling eel-skin clothing—jackets, footwear, and the like. Dig a little deeper into this issue, and you might discover Community Stories, a site funded by Digital Museums of Canada. Under “Eel Fishing on St. Lawrence South Shore,” you will encounter this:

Eel skin used to be rolled, dried and oiled to make thin strips of leather commonly known as babiche. This material was used to make snowshoes as well as the seats and backs of chairs. Eel leather is very strong and served to produce a variety of objects, including moccasins and harnesses.

Today, tanned eel skin is used to make luxury products. The tanning process turns it into very fine, slightly textured leather.2  

Dried Eel Skin

1Dictionary of Historical Slang by Eric Partridge et al. (Penguin Books, 1937).

2, “The Many Uses of Eel Skin.”

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