GENERAL ARTICLES

Fur Boom

BRUCE McLEOD March 15 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

Fur Boom

BRUCE McLEOD March 15 1945

Fur Boom

"To most women fur coats are an emotion"—to trappers, fur farmers and dealers they’re Big Business

BRUCE McLEOD

IF YOU'VE ever wondered what lights the stars in a woman's eyes drop into any fashionable fur salon and watch the females ogling the mink and

Persian lamb. Furs, history shows, were sending women into ecstasies thousands of years before Sinatra. In fact ever since the day the leopard skin replaced the fig leaf as a favorite of milady’s wardrobe the female of the species has been keeping one eye on her figure and the other on the fur fashions.

The manager of an exclusive Toronto fur shop puts it this way: “To most women furs are an emotion. They can be blondes, brunettes or redheads. They can be queens or chambermaids—but when you show them an ermine wrap or a silver fox jacket, they all go slightly crazy.”

And this year, despite the war and taxes, Canadian furriers expect Canadian women to buy more furs than ever before. Last year in this country an estimated 100,000 women bought new fur coats valued at more than $27 millions. In the United States fur coat sales spurted close to a million. But manufacturers, still not satisfied with their handsome $500 millions “take,” have begun talking in postwar terms of a “fur coat on every woman’s back.”

A boom in fur coats has already begun. Furriers attribute this to a variety of reasons. For one thing more people have more money to spend on luxury goods and since they can’t buy new cars, refrigerators, etc., they’re investing in furs. Women warworkers, too, have joined in the fur parade. Surveys conducted in munitions plants, shipyards, and aircraft factories across the Dominion have revealed that girls in war jobs have either already spent or intend to spend their first extra money in 1945 on a new fur coat.

Even the girls in uniform are beginning to do what furriers have predicted they’d do the minute “Civvie Street” beckoned again. In Winnipeg recently a young woman from the CWAC walked into a fur shop and laid $900 on the counter. “For three years,” she told a clerk, “I’ve promised myself a new fur coat the first day 1 climbed out of khaki. I’m up for discharge next month. Could you have my coat ready by then-—a sheared beaver with tuxedo front, squared-off shoulders, bell sleeves and turned-back cuffs?”

But coats are only a part of the story behind this new boom in furs. Furriers know that in both Canada and the United States during 1945 hundreds of thousands of women will wear fur in a variety of other ways too-—as neckpieces, muffs, jackets, mitts; as the trim on dresses, coats, hats and overshoes. They’ll wear it for warmth where it is 40 below. And they’ll wear it for show in sunnier climes.

To meet this increasing demand for fine fur Canada’s lucrative fur industry is going all out. From British Columbia to Prince Edward Island trappers and fur ranchers have reported a bumper crop of pelts. By June wild and ranch-bred fur valued at more than $29 millions will probably be headed for manufacturing shops via the trading post, fur dealer and auction room. Of this fortune in fur only about $7 millions (less than 25%) will come from the more than 8,100 fur farms operating in Canada. The remaining $22 millions will be accounted for by the trappers. In Ontario, largest fur-bearing province in the Dominion, more than 8,000 of these colorful characters patrolled the lonely forest lands this winter.

Typical of them is Big Louis, whose trapping paths stretch across almost 65 miles of rugged bushland

north of Cochrane. This spring when Big Louis comes out of the bush he’ll bring with him dozens of luxurious pelts. Some winters he has taken $1,800 worth of fur from his traps and deadfalls. Once, a few years ago, he made $3,200 in five months. This year pelts may not be as plentiful but what he lacks in quantity he’ll more than make up in price, for the trapper is getting record money for his furs. Beaver pelts, selling at an alltime high, have brought as much as $50 each. Mink has sold at $25, marten at $35 and fisher at $68. Fox furs this year brought the trapper between $8 and $10.

Meet Big Louis

BIG LOUIS is a sturdy individual with a barrel chest, high cheekbones and a copper-colored skin leathered by the wind and frost. Like most trappers he’s filled with fantastic tales of the bush.

Their quarry is the mink, the otter, the beaver, the fox, the fisher, the wolf, the lynx, the marten, the ermine, the squirrel and the muskrat—even the skunk and the lowly rabbit. They hunt them with the trap, deadfall and snare—and sometimes the gun and dog. By snowshoe and dog team they tend their trap lines—in bright sunshine and howling blizzard; in January thaw and

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Fur Boom

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weather so cold whisky freezes in the bottle and the touch of a steel trap sears the flesh off an unmittened hand.

Many trappers don’t work much between June and October. Usually by October, sometimes long before, Big Louis is broke. But fur buyers know he is a good man in the bush and he has little trouble borrowing money for supplies and equipment when fall comes and it is time for him to load his big canoe and head upstream to his trapping preserve.

For two or three weeks before the season opens he checks his traps and stocks the several overnight cabins located at strategic intervals along his trapping paths. One of the first, things he does is to boil his traps old ones and new ones—in pots containing cedar pine or spruce brush. This cleanses the old traps and softens the temper of the new ones, lessening the chance that they’ll crack under the bite of temperatures that drop to 60 below.

“She is also one fin’ way,” he says, “for remove man smell from d’ trap. Instead dey are perfume with smell from trees which is not for scare d’ animals.”

Once his traps are boiled he never handles them except when wearing trapping mitts.

Big Louis’ trap line runs through excellent country offering a wide variety of fur bearers. Hilly timberlands studded with spruce or pine are likely haunts for the marten, that amazingly energetic little creature despised for his wicked temper and bad habits but cherished for the beautiful dark brown fur he wears. Foxes are found in more open country dotted with rabbit runs, while beaver, mink, otter, fisher and muskrat inhabit the marshy regions streaked with small lakes and streams. Trapping the colored fox—the red, the cross, the silver and the blackis no simple chore, for they are crafty fellows. Most trappers with whom I talked, however, have little respect for the blue and white foxes of the Arctic regions. These, they claim, are stupid animals, easilv taken.

— And Rotten Eggs

Many white trappers nowadays, 1 was told, either ignore bait or are satisfied to scatter a little food bait— rancid fish or meat—around their traps. But not so the half-breeds and Indians. Many of these still use the fantastic “mixed bait” concotions used by tribesmen generations ago. One of these weird mixtures contains rotten birds’ eggs, aniseed, the glands taken from a female fox, and goodness knows what else. It is a stinking mixture, the more so because it is placed underground in a jug and allowed to rot. By the time it is ready to be daubed on the pan of the trap not even extreme cold can lessen its stench. This scent, however, is irresistible to many fur bearers and a single whiff of it, even at long distance, is said to lure them to the trap.

Few trappers use traps with teeth. These are destructive and could easily ruin a valuable pelt. Hence most traps are designed merely to hold the animal either until it starves or freezes to death or until the trapper arrives to kill it. This, in the case of smaller animals, is sometimes done by first stunning the animal with a thump across the snout and then pressing a moccasined foot gently over its heart until it is dead. In this way the fur is uninjured.

Typical of the many strange stories told to me by a black-bearded giant

who ran a trap line in northwestern Ontario is that concerning the foxtrapping technique used by one tribe of Indians. They set their traps in the crests of mounds of snow about two feet high. Food bait is sprinkled at the bottom of the mound and strongsmelling mixed bait is daubed here and there. Scenting this the passing fox is lured to the mound where it finds and eats the food bait. Presently it develops an urge to go and sit on the mound.

“Don’t laugh,” this trapper told me. “That’s a habit with foxes when their bellies are full. They like to sit on mounds. Only when they try it this time they spring the trap and are caught.”

On land mink are trapped just like foxes, fishers or martens, except, of course, smaller traps are used. In water a steel trap is usually set for mink just below the surface, where it rests on the mud or sandy bottom close to the bank of the stream where mink are known to pass in and out of the water. Nearby branches are flecked with mixed bait, and food bait is scattered close to the trap. This same water-trapping technique is used for otter, muskrat and beaver.

Removing live animals from the traps must be done cautiously, for some of them, especially the mink, fight like lions. The mink is greased lightning in a fur coat and while not overly clever he is a strong and ferocious fighter. He’ll tackle anything, regardless of size. Even in the water he can move fast enough to overtake a trout. When trapped he often hisses loudly—a warning to the trapper to beware, else he may lose a finger or be painfully bitten on the arms.

Trappers usually skin their catch as the traps are emptied and reset. Then hack at his cabin, a good trapper scrapes the fresh pelts free of grease and fat and stretches them on frames or pieces of board. Some skins, like

muskrat, dry overnight. Others, like beaver, take two or three days. Finally the dried skins are stacked in a cool place, awaiting shipment.

But it’s a long trail from the trapper’s cabin to the swank fur salon where mink and beaver wind up as a heavenly something or other on milady’s back. Some skins pass through many hands. The trapper may sell his furs to the trader who goes into the bush and talks business right on the trap line. Some fur traders do a handsome business. One near Sioux Lookout, Ont., is said to have gone into the bush in November and come out this February with furs worth $27,000.

Of course many trappers never see a trader. Instead they either ship or bring their pelts to some reliable fur buyer in a nearby village or town. This buyer, in turn, may resell these furs to another buyer who then sells them over again to an auction warehouse or to some manufacturer.

Both the trader and raw fur dealer pride themselves on their ability to judge a good pelt. Some claim they can even tell by looking inside the skin the approximate date it was killed. “Look inside a fox skin,” one old fellow told me, “and you know in a jiffy if it is prime or not. The roots of the hair never show through on the inside of a prime skin.”

Bob Kizell, a fur buyer at North Bay, Ont., explains a prime skin this way: “It’s a skin taken at a season of the year when the fur is at its finest. Fur on different animals is prime at different times of the year.

“Once deep snow arrives mink pelts are not as good,” Kizell explains. “The underfur gets singed as the mink scampers across the snow. The brittle tips of the hair become frayed and break off. Some mink fur is so delicate you can singe it merely by brushing it with your hand.”

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Some fur buyers and many trappers claim wild fur is superior to that bred on fur farms but ranchers retort that this is not true. “Take mink, for instance,” a rancher told me. “On the farm they live a life of luxury from the day they are born. Mink like a diet of horse meat and fish but we feed them better than that. We give them codliver oil, eggs, grapefruit, lemons, liver and dried milkthings a wild mink never gets. It is only natural then that the ranch mink should have better, more luxurious fur.”

Regardless of who is right the rancher is playing an increasingly important role in the nation’s fur industry. First operated in Prince Edward Island about 50 years ago, fur farming has spread to every province in the Dominion. Across the country today there are more than 8,000 farms dedicated to the raising of foxes, mink, rabbit, nutria, coyote, muskrat, marten, raccoon—even chinchilla, the precious little animal that’s worth its weight in gold. A handful of Canadian fur ranchers—about nine or 10—are gambling that chinchilla can be raised in Canada. Breeding stock costs up to $2,000 a pair hut ranchers figure that’s cheap if they can only make a success of raising them in captivity.

With about 2,300 fur farms in operation, Quebec leads all Canada. Ontario runs second with about 1,200. Fox farms far outnumber all other types and j Quebec and Prince Edward Island are tops in this field. Mink farms are next most numerous and Ontario leads the nation with about 700. Alberta is not far behind with 530. Authorities have estimated that there were 68,000 standard silver foxes and 21,000 newtype foxes on Canadian farms at the 'beginning of 1944. About 112,000 I silver fox pups and 40,000 new-type fox pups were raised during the year, with 106,000 standard silvers slated for j pelting. In January, 1944, there were about 110,000 standard adult mink on Canadian ranches. Production for the year was set tentatively at 259,214 standard mink kittens and 3,862 I new-type kittens. In all about 230,000 mink were scheduled for pelting.

Women Prefer Blondes

Any fashion page will confirm the great modern swing to pale furs. That’s j the rancher’s doing. Only a few years j ago women insisted on silver fox that j was mostly black and only lightly j sprinkled with silver. Today the most I fashionable silver fox is br'ght with silver and fur experts have developed some new beauties like the pearl platinum, the silver blue and the white j face.

Mink, too, has gone blonde. As I recently as 1942 stylists were saying I that dark mink was best. At that time even light mink skins were “blended” (dyed) to a fashionable darkness. Today, however, light-brown mink is left its natural color and enthusiastic manufacturers are labelling it “honeydew.” This trend to pale mink was given great impetus recently by the appearance of a new fur sensation—the rare and costly silver-blue mink, a shimmering, silky fur that looks like sunlight on a snow-capped mountain. The silver-blue mink is neither bleached nor dyed. It is born that way a product of chance and scientific skill.

Silver-blue mink kittens first appeared in the litters of two Wisconsin fur ranchers. These men inbred them for several generations until the color reproduced and then the big ranchers took over. After numerous experiments they became convinced that this strange, fascinating color represented a mutation. Hence, silver blue stepped ' out of the freak class and became a

recognized strain of the mink species. Silver-blue skins have brought the highest price ever paid for mink at the New York Fur Auction—$265 a pelt. Today there are enough silver-blue skins on the market to make possibly 100 or more coats but only one or two such garments have been sold. If you wanted one it would cost you $15,000 or more, depending on length.

Ranchers are also predicting a bright future for three other new mink mutations platinum sable, white mink and black snow. Platinum sable has a sable-brown underfur with silvery guard hairs. Black snow has white underfur with a black streak through the middle. There is, it seems, no limit to the variety of colors in which mink can be bred and, while it may sound preposterous now, some furriers grin and say, “Drop around next year, Mac, and we’ll be able to sell you a mink coat to match your wife’s hair.”

Opossum, raccoon and muskrat, too, have joined the blonde parade and all are often left as pale as they were born. Even rabbit, which for years attempted to disguise itself as sealskin or beaver, is appearing today in a black-and-white state, the result of some fancy crossbreeding.

Despite the modern trend furriers remind you that dark staples such as beaver, Persian lamb, dark muskrat, skunk and Alaska sealskin still make up more than 72% of the nation’s fur sales.

Mink is judged solely on its quality, the tightness and thickness of the fur and its color. It must be soft to the rouch. “Most of us ranchers have rough, leathery fingers,” this rancher explained. “So when we want to judge the quality of a mink’s pelt we brush it against the tender skin of our faces. Once I was careless and got a chunk nipped out of my chin.”

The standard mink should he dark brown in the middle and a deep blue toward the sides. This year first quality mink skins have brought about $30 each and it takes between 70 and 80 to make a coat. That explains why you have to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to drape the apple of your eye in a mink coat.

“The mink is a bigamist, too,” my friend the rancher chuckled. “We allow him three wives and during the breeding season you’ve got to watch they are not frightened. We keep them in pens and the nests must bekeptdry.”

Foxes are less trouble to raise and fox ranchers get handsome prices for their furs. This year platinum fox pelts sold for $125 while the standard silver brought the rancher $80. Unlike the pelt of the mink, which is extremely delicate before tanning, the skin of the fox isn’t harmed by handling or sunlight. It takes about four pelts to make a platinum fox cape, which sells at about $500.

Men who farm muskrat often lease or buy outright marshy sections of land. They either stock it or develop its natural muskrat colonies, taking out so many ’rats each season. This can get to be a big business, for the muskrat breeds quickly, though his pelt seldom

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sells, as now, for $3.00. “D’ muskrat is wan fin’ fellow,” an old Frenchman told me. “Sometime he ’ave two t’ree hundred kids in single year.”

Fur Auction

For both the trapper and fur rancher the fur auction warehouse offers good selling facilities. In these warehouses, strung across the Dominion, auctions are held at frequent intervals, and this year by the time June rolls around fur crops worth many millions of dollars will have passed through the warehouses at Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina and other western cities. To these sales come buyers from many parts of Canada, the United States, Mexico— even the South Americas.

Largest of these auctions is held in the drab warehouse of the Canadian Fur Auction Sales Limited, at Montreal. In the first sale there this year more than $2 millions in raw furs was on display.

A fur sale is not the glamorous event you might imagine. The warehouses are usually chilly and barren looking despite the fortune in furs lying around on tables. Even the furs lack glamour in their unstuffed form. At the Montreal auction more than 35,000 fox furs were displayed. Listed also were 23,000 ermine, 60,000 muskrat, 2,900 raccoon, 38,000 squirrel, 3,200 beaver, 6,500 skunk and substantial quantities of marten, fisher, badger, otter, rabbit, wolf—and yes, even the lowly house cat.

All furs at an auction are catalogued and prospective buyers have a chance to study them a few days in advance of the sale. They are sold in lots, with so many large, medium and small pelts in each lot. Often the auctioneer starts the bid himself, working down the

price until he gets a nibble from a buyer in the audience. Buyers signify they want to buy at such-and-such a price by raising a pencil. To spot bidders the auctioneer has two aides on the platform with him.

Once the bidding starts it’s every man for himself and often the price rockets back higher even than that first mentioned by the auctioneer. Many buyers have secret signs which they tell the auctioneer’s aides before the sale starts. Some stroke a cheek, pull the lobe of their ear or comb their hair. This is to keep their competitors from knowing what furs they’re buying.

“Fur prices,” explains Walter J. Bailey of the MacPherson furriers in Toronto, “fluctuate every month. They are governed by both popularity and quality. Sometimes buyers purchase furs one month and then hold them for many weeks expecting the price to go up. It’s something like the stock market. If you gamble right you make a fortune. If you’re wrong you’re broke.”

Bailey thinks Canada has a brilliant fur future. “Women are not only more interested in furs,” he says, “but manufacturers are doing things with fur never before attempted. And look at the price range,” he says. “We’re getting furs down to prices that the average woman can afford. Oh, chinchilla or Russian sable still sells for $40,000 or $50,000 but don’t forget you can buy a fur coat for as low as $59, too. In fact 80% of the fur coats today sell for between $100 and $300.”

This, of course, doesn’t mean that the day of “a fur coat on every woman’s back” is just around the corner. But it’s a hint to the mink, the beaver, the fox, the marten, the muskrat wherever they may be that the time has come to dig in and tighten their pelts.