National Geographic : 1948 Mar
The Romance of American Furs BY WANDA BURNETT IN 1947 in the United States retail fur dealers sold an estimated $450,000,000 worth of furs. The pelts which fed this huge industry poured into the markets from all the fur sources of the world. They were swamp- and forest-trapped, home-grown and ranch-raised. They arrived as raw pelts and emerged as silky-textured warm fur coats. The man with the trap starts this tiny bit of fur rolling along one of the most involved and confused paths in all industry. From animal to finished garment these skins, moving along the processing trail, are repeatedly scraped of fat, graded, dressed, dyed, blended, and bleached. The fur is cut, sliced, matched, patched, let out, let in, stretched, nailed, squared, and stitched. Each operation may be done at a different place. Some may be combined in one plant. Cheap furs are snatched from bundles and expertly made to resemble costly ones. Musk rats thus become "mink," "sable," or "seal." Raccoon and some sheepskin, each by a dif ferent process, emerge either as "beaver" or "nutria." Common rabbits get their stenciled spots and come forth as "leopards." Costly furs are made more costly by a "let out" process of slicing the skins into thousands of pencil-thin diagonal strips and stitching them together again in a manner which lends grace and beauty of line to the finished coat but adds hundreds of dollars to the price (page 391). Pelts Pass Through Many Hands But even before these pelts reach the cut ter's table or the stitcher's bench, they pass through many hands. The collector receives them from trappers and fur farmers. He scrapes off the fat overlooked by the trapper, sorts for size, color, and quality, and waits for the big city merchant to pick up from here. These merchants are located in St. Louis, Seattle, Minneapolis, and other cities. Many are concentrated in New York City. Their representatives visit the collector, paw through the mounds of pelts, and ship the selections back to their city warehouses. Here pelts are again sorted and bundled, this time to suit the needs of the smaller city dealer. Then dressers and dyers, magicians of the fur trade, begin to come into the picture. Many manufacturers who buy their skins raw send them to their chosen experts in this field to be processed before actual making of a fur coat begins. Manufacturers are as varied in their in- terests as are the furs they handle. Not all of them make coats. And those who do, don't all make the same kind of coats. Some are strictly "sportswear" makers. Others create "dress coats" only. Some make trimmings-collars, cuffs, or both. And the trimming trade is again broken down to include those who merely stitch to gether tiny bits of fur pieces into long strips known as "yardage." Retail houses bulge under the load of coats which pour into their salesrooms. But again the wholesale houses supplying them are divided. The greatest volume comes from quantity houses, which produce on a lavish numerical scale but keep well within the low-priced range. They push their wares along the as sembly line at a frantic pace, making magic with rabbit fur and inexpensive lambskins. Popular-priced houses make both dress and sport coats, take furs slightly above those of the volume houses, but send their products into retail channels which also aim to please the lady with the slim pocketbook. At the head of the class is the style house, working in fine furs only and catering to the "one of a kind" customer. To protect their buyers against duplication, they sell not only the coat but the pattern as well. This is the usual course of a pelt, but occa sionally there are slight deviations. If the collector, for instance, is in need of cash, or anxious to clear out his stock to make room for more incoming pelts, he by-passes the big city merchants and ships to auction companies. When I arrived in Milwaukee, the American National Fur Breeders Association was sched uling a sale of ranch-raised "sundry furs." Pelts had been pouring into the warehouse by the hundreds of bundles. They repre sented the trappers' catch and those taken from numerous Midwest fur ranches. Attending a Fur Auction The American National Cooperative Fur Auction was to be at a local hotel, but furs were being shown at a warehouse a few blocks away. Pelt previewing had been going on for several days. Buyers from New York, Chicago, and other fur cities had been crowd ing in with their catalogues, pencils, and note books. I saw these men, white coats or dusters worn over business suits, wandering around in the furry forest of pelts. They eyed the skins from every angle. There were few ex clamations and very little conversation.